Is there something in your history which can hurt you if someone searched your name on the Internet? Do you ever wish that you could remove material from the Web which could damage your reputation? There are no laws in the United States which currently allow for this, but European courts have opened the door for Google and other search engines to address this concern, and US legal experts are following the situation closely.
It's called 'the right to be forgotten', and it has broad support in the EU (European Union) under the European Data Protection Regulation, as well as in other human rights circles. Basically, the European Court of Justice ruled in May that Google had to remove a link to a Spanish newspaper report about a foreclosure which the plaintiff felt damaged his reputation, particularly since the debts have since been repaid. The Court stated that search engines are responsible for the content they point to, and that European citizens are protected from irrelevant or malicious Internet data.
The Google Dilemma
Google, which owns 90% of the search engine share of business in EU countries, was sent away with a mandate to change its policies. According to The Guardian, by July 1 Google had over 70,000 requests to delete links. The search engine giant instituted a procedure to apply for search result removal. You may now see this declaration the next time you launch a search on Google: 'Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe'.
However, in a move which indicates Google's ambivalence toward the Court's ruling, Google is announcing to the media when such links are being removed. This further publicizes exactly the situation which the aggrieved are attempting to make vanish!
First Amendment Privileges
Many question if this is something that Google (or Bing, or Yahoo) will ever have to deal within the U.S. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects free speech, right? But, the information isn't being removed. It's still out there. The courts are only demanding that the links to that material must be removed. It certainly qualifies as a form of suppression, but is it censorship?
Search engines and Internet providers in the U.S. have been protected from liability for passing on data unless it violates copyright laws, or is demonstrably slanderous. Yet, there are numerous statutes on the books in this country which protect reputations that are easily violated with a Google search. Past legal problems which are court ordered to be expunged or sealed, for example, are effortlessly available to anyone open to a little Internet sleuthing.
Many have pointed out that this is more a privacy matter. Still, does a convicted pedophile have the same right to be forgotten as someone who filed for bankruptcy? Can a celebrity file to delete links to unflattering photos?
It is early days, yet, and there is no certainty that Google will figure out how to handle this even to its own satisfaction, but this controversy isn't going away anytime soon. Already there are legal offices popping up in Europe, eager to help you expunge an embarrassing link or two (for a fee). In a land of lobbyists, litigators, and litigation, can there really be any doubt that the United States will be dealing with this soon?