The Right to Be Forgotten

The purpose of a search engine is to answer queries with the most relevant information available, but the resulting links are being increasingly vetted for many reasons, now including privacy. Data privacy is a growing issue but concerns over censorship are also well-established - the recent right to be forgotten legislation crosses the boundaries of both.

The law resurfaced when Mario Costeja González, a Spanish national, argued that stories about his long resolved financial past shouldn’t damage his future by appearing in Google’s results pages. He won his battle, but the grander argument is that if an affected person issues a removal request, inaccurate or irrelevant data should be removed from the search index and locked in a digital Room 101 indefinitely.

Forget-me-now

Hundreds of thousands of requests have been made since the law was passed and search results are actively being removed. Links to Wikipedia, a website where anybody can contribute their genuine knowledge or momentarily claim to be a Tiddlywinks World Champion, are even being pulled. If content could be reported and removed from results pages because of a temporary slander, what does this mean for Wikipedia’s future? A shift from public contribution is unlikely, but is it realistic for every edit to be rigorously moderated?

There’s also the issue that anything committed to the internet can never be completely removed. Webpages can be accessed in many ways and even if a site is taken down it can still be viewed via a copy held in the cache on other websites. That said, the amending of search engine results means that searching for a person’s name may not disclose all of the information you’d hope it would.

The implications for the web and personal privacy are huge. Amongst other battles, the public’s rights are in one corner and each individual’s are in the other. This got me thinking – if given the chance, what would people like to hide about their own digital footprint?

Ancient social profiles

Whether it’s the auto-playing music, the photos or the personalised URL you thought was hip, there’s nothing good to come from visiting your old MySpace or, even worse, Bebo page. No amount of syrupy nostalgia will protect you from the dark depths of your formative years.

I’m still scarred by my public declaration of love for Papa Roach, but there are worse offences. A controversial image or status update could frighten off a potential employer if discovered. There is always the inexplicably complicated process of deleting a profile, but screenshots and records will still exist. It would be nice for those soppy song lyrics and outbursts you posted to just be forgotten, wouldn’t it?

Old websites

Outside of Beauty Pageant entrants, nobody really likes to be judged. Particularly not on something they did in their past, something they have put behind them. A rebrand or site launch is an exciting opportunity for a fresh start, but your past will always stay with you.

Whether you’ve launched several new concepts since or issued a single update, your first site is likely caught in the cache and readily accessible to anybody who’s inclined to pay it a visit. Is this fair to fledgling businesses who launched a site rapidly without considering the repercussions? While there is no realistic method of destroying all evidence of a website’s existence, it’s better to fess up now. Here’s what remains of our first site.

Viral video stars

You may no longer remember the face of Marine*, but some experiences leave lasting marks. Michael Clancy is a grown man now - an attorney at that - but his past** continues to embarrass him. Have you ever felt like you’re being watched?

The majority of viral videos spiral, madly out of control before traffic tapers off neatly upon the discovery of the next trending star. These temporary internet sensations deserve liberation through the thoughtful removal of their videos. Without the reference point to their fame they would be free of their digital binds and may be able to sidle back into animosity. Doesn’t that sound nice? Would these videos really be missed after the initial buzz died down?

I don’t expect Google or other search engines to extend the right to be forgotten onto any of the above, but it would certainly be welcomed by those who are afflicted. If you could hide one part of your online past, what would it be? A social media breakdown or the murky territory of your Instant Messaging history?

* Venn do not condone or encourage slapping.
** Or dodgy rapping.

Flickr Creative Commons Image: Andilicious

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