Navigating the thin line between the public’s right to know and an individual’s right to privacy has always been tricky business, and the recent “Right To Be Forgotten” ruling by a European court hasn’t made it any clearer. In early May, the court ordered Google to remove search results deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” as per a private individual’s request.
With such a game-changing decision on the books, it’s important to look at the pros and cons of this controversial ruling and its impact on the availability and transparency of information.
“Right To Be Forgotten” on Par With Censorship
From the perspective that people searching for information should have the right to access everything that has, at one time or another, been posted about a specific topic, company or individual, the ruling seems tantamount to censorship. And censorship controlled by individuals who may have motivation to hide bad behaviors of the past that may be relevant to current searches.
For example, a dental hygienist who was investigated for selling prescriptions multiple times might feel she has good reason to want that information removed from search results, as it could bias potential employers and others who find that information. However, for future employers and the general public’s safety, one could argue that such information remains relevant no matter how old it is and how sorry the offender now is.
An additional caveat to the ruling is the impact on newspapers and other media outlets whose publications may be inadvertently censored because links to articles may no longer be listed in search results. Regardless of a media outlet’s scruples or reputation, if a link containing an individual’s name is requested for removal and approved, that publication has now had its contents repressed by an entity other than its editor or publisher. This could be considered to compromise the First Amendment of the US Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press.
Ruling Allows Individuals to Protect Their Image
No doubt we all have an unflattering picture, cruel comment, or perhaps even an inaccurate statement or two about us living somewhere on the Internet – and once it’s out there, there’s no getting it back. But this ruling changes that.
For teenagers who post every moment and random thought without consideration of the long-term impact, the “Right to Be Forgotten” might seem like a godsend once those teens have grown up and want to join the adult world without a chronicle of their teenage malaise following them forever.
It seems unfortunate that information posted online can stick to you indefinitely, and this ruling definitely opens the door for change when it comes to cleaning up a messy online presence after an individual has changed course and no longer wants to be perceived a certain way.
No Easy Answer
Taking away the right of people to have access to all the information in order to make an informed decision is a slippery slope. While parents or overly enthusiastic online posters may feel like rejoicing at the opportunity to wipe away embarrassing or potentially damaging parts of the past, the larger implications are frightening.
Google was under heavy scrutiny for slanting search results in order to cater to the most popular views and opinions. By adding additional ways to influence the results in a Google search, the problem of providing unbiased information to help an individual reach a conclusion is exacerbated.
In the information age it is inconceivable that “Right to Be Forgotten” is even an option. Public interest should be held above a private individual’s embarrassment. And in the case of inaccurate or libelous information, there are already avenues in place for an individual to clear their name and help correct public perceptions.
Perhaps the silver lining is that this ruling only applies to Google. Individuals seeking access to information that has been de-listed by Google can use other search engines. However, with more than three million searches per day, as of September 2013, it seems obvious that unless Google users switch search engines, they are likely to encounter an ever-shrinking world view.
Find Edwin on Google+
Photo: Carlos Luna/Flickr