Tens of millions of people have had the painful experience of cruising the Internet and discovering something mortifying — about themselves. And many have immediately been seized with some variation of the following question: How do I make that go away before my parents/spouse/boss can see it?
For Europeans, the answer became clearer this week when the continent’s highest court ruled that individuals have a right to demand that Google-search links to unflattering material be deleted, a step toward what privacy advocates there have christened “the right to be forgotten.”
But those seeking a similar right in the United States have stumbled upon the expansive free-speech protections in the First Amendment. Blocking access to even the most damaging information — mug shots, videos of intimate acts, or Web pages created by cyber-stalkers — can be difficult and often impossible, experts say. Online news accounts of past personal problems are even harder to leave behind.
“In the United States, we’re going to be sorting out two pieces of our own identity. We are a land of second chances, and we are a land of freedom of expression,” said Meg Leta Ambrose, a technology policy professor at Georgetown University who has studied the drive to create a “right to be forgotten.”
The tensions are particularly acute in cases involving victims of sexual violence or online bullying. After Ambrose gave a presentation in Texas in 2012, a young woman approached her with the story of “friend” — Ambrose assumed it was the woman herself — who had spoken publicly about being a rape victim. Years later, searches of her name prominently featured a news story recounting the crime, to the point that she feared it defined her reputation, Ambrose said.
One in four Americans ages 18 to 29 reported being embarrassed t by something that appeared online about them, according to a Washington Post poll in November. That ranges from an indiscreet photo or a Facebook post that, in retrospect, seems ill-considered.
“We are walking on eggshells a little bit,” Ambrose said. “A certain right to be forgotten could be liberating.”
In other cases, friends, acquaintances or even former romantic partners post material that subjects would rather see disappear forever. A Pakistani woman who came the United States for college said she was devastated to see pictures of herself wearing Western clothes and drinking alcohol posted online by a stalker from her home country. The pictures — apparently hacked from her email account — shocked her family, causing lasting damage.
The woman spoke on the condition that her name not be used. “I still feel humiliated. . . . He ruined a lot of things for me,” said the woman, who is 26 and lives in the Midwest. “That profile has been taken down, but people saw it.”
The European ruling grew from a Spanish case in which a man wanted links deleted to information about his 1998 tax problems, which he said were no longer relevant.
The court said that a newspaper pursuing “journalistic purposes” could maintain its online links to coverage of the man’s problems but that Google was merely “processing personal data” in providing search links. Such data, the court ruled, should be deleted at the man’s request, if it was outdated and no longer relevant. U.S. technology companies are bracing for a flood of such requests in Europe.
The distinction between the newspaper and the search engine puzzled some U.S. legal experts, but it seemed appropriate to Kelly Caine, a Clemson University psychologist who studies how people interact with technology. Traditionally, stories published by newspapers were forgotten over time. But search engines, by making such information permanently accessible, have become something akin to a collective consciousness for humankind.
“That is a huge shift. That’s not something we’ve had before the last 20 years. And we don’t know what the cost of that will be,” Caine said. Without the ability to escape personal histories, “there’s no rebirth. There’s no starting over.”
Distributed by The Washington Post/Bloomberg News