A Spaniard named Mario Costeja complained to the European high court about a bothersome search result attached to his name. His home had been repossessed in the late ‘90s, and he was tired of having the record of his misfortune pop up whenever someone googled his name.
Surprisingly, the court ruled in his favor. As a result, Europeans may request that search engines remove links to web pages so that their personal data is not included in search results.
Privacy advocates hailed the decision as a “right to be forgotten.” Perhaps more accurately it could be called a right to remove some online records from wide and easy access. Others are concerned about the unintended consequences of the decision. As the Times went on to say:
Jonathan Zittrain, a law and computer science professor at Harvard, said those who were determined to shape their online personas could in essence have veto power over what they wanted people to know.
“Some will see this [court decision] as corrupting,” he said. “Others will see it as purifying. I think it’s a bad solution to a very real problem, which is that everything is now on our permanent records.”
Recently a man with “Google problems” contacted me. He said an old post on my personal blog, which I began 10 years ago, had likely cost him job opportunities. The man admitted that in the mid-2000s he had done some cocaine at a costume party, which led to embarrassing behavior (while in costume) and his eventual arrest. In my post, I had liberally quoted from a news story about the incident and said little else. At the time, I was trying to provide a morning laugh for my hundreds of daily readers.
The news story came and went, and became a dead link that was inaccessible to online searches. But my post didn’t. For years, whenever someone googled this guy’s name, my blog post appeared in the top three search results. And it remained there because it was bizarre, stood out, and practically begged for a click-through to see all the lurid details.
Apparently some potential employers couldn’t resist doing just that. It had caused this man grief. He told me his mother was also embarrassed because people in her circle had passed around a link to my blog.
So I deleted the post from my archives. This guy wasn’t a public figure, and I had added nothing of substance to the account; just snark. I’d published the post on a whim eight years earlier, for entertainment value, and had promptly forgotten it. But it had plagued this poor soul ever since.
I certainly sympathized with the guy. Who wants to be defined online by their most embarrassing public moment? How do you “start over” when, no matter where you go, anyone who googles your name finds out you were once a coke-fueled maniac doing salacious things while dressed in, say, a chicken outfit? How do you get that image out of your head?
More generally, in a world of cell-phone cameras and pesky citizen reporters, will the specter of our “permanent records” on Google compel us to never over-imbibe or risk doing something embarrassing? Even in New Orleans?!
Conversely, I’ve imagined the following scenario more than once in the weeks since I deleted the post: What if the guy I helped gets a job and later injures someone in the workplace because he was on drugs? Would I share some responsibility for that? Did his boss and co-workers have a public interest in knowing about his past drug use and antic behavior?
Where do you draw the line between safeguarding personal data and the public’s interest in knowing it? Would this apply to videos, as well? If search engines can be curated like profile pages on Facebook, doesn’t that limit their value?
As they work to comply with the decision, Google says it needs some time to digest the implications. So do I.
Do you agree with the court’s ruling? Do you agree with my decision to erase a blog post? Tell me your thoughts about the issue in the comment section below. But don’t say something you’ll eternally regret, unless you plan to move to Europe.