The right to be forgotten – deleting your online self

Ever typed your own name into Google and cringed at some of the search results?

No?

You’re lying. But you’re also not alone.

Perhaps you were arrested for stealing a mince pie as a poor University student and the local paper’s court reporter was on a slow news day. Maybe you attended a music festival that turned riotous and you happily accepted a TV interview as a spokesperson for your generation’s raucous youth. If your name was on the record then those past transgressions, no matter how harmless, remain easily accessible for public consumption.

The perils of information privacy in the online era are certainly not new. However, a series of significant developments in the past year appear to be changing the game and the ‘right to be forgotten’ may be shifting some control back into the hands of the individual.

It initially all began with a Spanish lawyer by the name of Mario Costeja Gonzalez who objected to some ‘out-of-date and potentially harmful information’ appearing in Google’s search results for his own name. The info was from a story published in 1998 regarding a forced sale of property due to social security debt. The Spanish internet warrior argued the sale was concluded years ago and was no longer relevant. To cut a long story short, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found in his favour and ruled that individuals should have the right to control their online data and that they could request the Googles of this world remove ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant’ data from their search results.

At this stage, the ruling means only European-based search engines must comply. So, as an example, you’re an Italian who’s successfully requested for certain search results to be deleted from Google.it, there’s no stopping anyone from accessing the same personal information through Google.com and other international search engines. Google automatically directs users to the local version of its search engine but privacy watchdogs across Europe want the results to be erased across the board to properly reflect the internet’s global reach.

With such a mammoth development on its hands, Google put together an independent advisory council to develop a report, outlining just how they planned to navigate the tricky road ahead. The report’s findings were released at the start of the year and for the time being, the internet giant will continue limiting the censorship to Europe. Here’s the report if you have the time.

Since the ruling came into play, Google has received in excess of 222,000 deletion requests; a clear sign that citizens want to regain control of their online data. What’s perhaps not quite as clear is how Google can make judgment calls on which requests get the green light. So far, 60% of all the requests have been rejected.

The arguments are clearly far from over, most built around how the ruling can strike a fair balance between freedom of expression and the media vs. empowering the individual to manage his or her own personal data. Or more simply, the US of A’s protection of its freedom of speech up against Europe’s stance on personal privacy.

By deleting certain information online are we rewriting history? How far do we need to go?

Whose side are you on?