In the age of the Internet, the irrelevant past is no longer swallowed by oblivion. Even after you die, the record of your life — warts and all — will be available for discovery and scrutiny online. Your social media might be your everlasting legacy, so don’t post what you don’t want your great-great-great-grandchildren to see. People were once able to request their phone numbers be unlisted in the phone book, but even that seems laughable now. Anyone’s phone number and address can now be found online with relative ease, along with a whole host of other personal information.
The European Union attempted to address the issue of online confidentiality with a “right to be forgotten” law. Passed in 2014, it essentially means anyone can request their personal information be removed from search engine results. If the information is determined to be “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive,” then it is delisted.
Why should people be stripped of their right to privacy in the modern age? Why should anyone be able to access information about the lives of other people? It’s an extremely recent development in human history that people are so beholden to themselves — they are unable to escape elements of their past that are embarrassing or traumatic and, crucially, now irrelevant. Just because someone requests their information be removed from search engines, it doesn’t mean the request will be granted. Since the EU law passed, Google has only delisted 43 percent of the 2.4 million requests made — nearly 90 percent of which came from private individuals. If the information is considered more important to public interest than the individual’s right to privacy, then that request is denied.
This law is very much tied to culture, which is probably why a similar law will never pass in the U.S. While Europeans value privacy, many Americans vocally support the right to access information and defend this with the First Amendment. Even so, 88 percent of Americans support a law that would allow them to petition to be forgotten in search results. The closest the U.S. has come to implementing a law like this was in New York, where a senate committee twice reviewed legislation regarding the right to be forgotten.
Those against the right to be forgotten argue this law aims to censor and limit the right to free speech. But this isn’t necessarily about free speech — it includes things like records of minor crimes, embarrassing divorces or house foreclosures. This isn’t the free speech of individuals, but instead a matter of bureaucratic public records. And there are certainly cases in which the right to privacy and dignity trump the right to free speech, things like revenge porn or articles about people convicted of crimes who were later found to be innocent. Such search results can damage job prospects, relationships and generally make a person’s life unnecessarily difficult.
People should have the right to control their personal information and to be forgotten, as they have for most of human history. Technology has made the conflict between privacy and free speech much more evident, and will only continue to do so as the Internet becomes more omniscient and potentially oppressive.