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.
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