We need a right to be forgotten

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I remember as a young newspaper reporter going to different jurisdictions where public records were kept and putting together background information on an individual.

I had to have a compelling reason to do it, because although the records were public, it  took considerable effort to gather the information.  With the Internet and the advent of the Digital Age that's changed.  Do a Google search and tremendous amounts of information about an individual are available in a few minutes time.

In the past most people's privacy was protected because of the effort necessary to gather "public" information about them.  You could do it, but why would you?

Also contributing to privacy was the passage of time.  You might have done something really stupid and embarrassing in your youth.  Who knows, maybe even broken the law.  But if you cleaned up your act or "paid your debt to society," as they say, people tended to forget what had happened.

Sure, someone could dig into local newspaper files and get the details, but why would they?

The Internet doesn't forget.  It's easy now to do a Google search and dig all that stuff  up.

As explained by Suzanne Daley in The New York Times this week there's growing sentiment in Europe that people ought to be able to delete information about them from the Web:

"Among them was a victim of domestic violence who discovered that her address could easily be found through Google. Another, well into middle age now, thought it was unfair that a few computer key strokes could unearth an account of her arrest in her college days.

"They might not have received much of a hearing in the United States, where Google is based. But here, as elsewhere in Europe, an idea has taken hold —individuals should have a  'right to be forgotten' on the Web."

In Spain the government has ordered Google to stop indexing information about 90 people who have filed complaints with the Spanish Data Protection Agency.  Google is fighting the case.

Later this fall the European Union  is expected to offer new "right to be forgotten" rules.  It's not clear what will emerge, but Viviane Reding the EU's justice commissioner's views were described by the Times like this:

“I cannot accept that individuals have no say over their data once it has been launched into cyberspace,” she said last month. She said she had heard the argument that more control was impossible, and that Europeans should “get over it.”

But, Ms. Reding said, “I don’t agree.”

Before the Digital Age and the Internet a balance between the need for public records and personal privacy was maintained by the difficulty in gathering information from disparate and distant files as well as the tendency of humans to forget.  Google and its search algorithms don't allow that now.
We need to focus on what this sea change means to society and how to deal with it.  The European idea of a right to be forgotten makes a lot of sense.

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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