The United States; land of the free…
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is Freedom of Speech. But when does that freedom collide with a person’s right to privacy in our country? As a country, we protect freedom of expression. But our forward moving, electronic society means that each person has a digital footprint. Take for example the silly things one does in high school being posted and coming up in a Google search twenty years later affecting ones job or life in a significant way. Should we have the right to remove information that we do not like or think is no longer relevant? Who decides if it is relevant? These are some of the questions currently being asked because of a recent petition filed in the United States by an advocacy group.
In 2014, the European Union (which includes 28 countries) put into effect a court ruling that gives the people in those countries “the Right to be Forgotten”. This means that Google and other similar search engines must consider all requests for removal of personal information if the information is no longer relevant. But there are also many concerns that arise from such a law. Namely, at what point does the quality of internet searches become compromised through censorship and become a rewriting of history? Search engines also help us find important information about people as well. Another concern for opponents of the court ruling in Europe is that it would allow people to whitewash their history and provide biased information instead of factual information. For opponents of the right to be forgotten law, there is a need to protect the integrity of information that people can access.
Google has reported that many criminals and dangerous people have been among the thousands of people requesting to be forgotten in the European Union. Search engines maintain that part of what they provide the public is information that helps to keep people safe (Wikipedia, 2015).
The Right to Be Forgotten in the United States
The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission last week (July, 2015) arguing that Google should honor “the right to be forgotten” in the United States and not doing so is a violation of federal law. The petition contends that if Google is as committed to privacy as they profess to be, they would honor requests by American users to remove irrelevant and/or outdated information. A key privacy feature is the “forget-me” tool that is available to European users, but not American users.
The forget-me tool allows a user to request that specific information not be accessible to public record. However, the search engine does not have to grant all requests for removal. Google only granted about forty one percent of the requests (Morran, 2015). The Consumer Watchdog group denies that they are in any way attempting to alter public records or have important factual information removed. Instead, they would like to help citizens who may have transgressions in their past, which could unfairly be used against them when they are no longer relevant or important.
One such case took place in 2012 when a former guidance counselor from a New York City high school was fired because her past modeling photos taken in the 1990s surfaced on the internet. The photos were altered and her face was put on someone else’s body. They even found their way to websites with a sexual element that she never approved of. Despite her repeated attempts to remove them, she was unable to. Despite dedicating twelve years to her job as a counselor, she ended up spending two years in limbo awaiting investigation and was ultimately fired from Murray Bergtraum High School for “conduct unbecoming” an employee of the Department of Education (Gordon, 2012). She ended up changing her name and getting a new job at a new school.
Ironically, a Google search of this issue turns up story after story of these types of cases. Revenge porn seems to be another important area of concern with regard to this issue. It does not seem that anyone would dispute that there are certain circumstances when the right to be forgotten should be invoked. From a psychological perspective, there are so many ways that damaging information or pictures affects people’s lives. Imagine the helplessness and fear that comes when your life is affected by something that you have no control over.
Prior to such widespread use of the internet, people who did foolish things in their youth could get beyond them and be judged primarily on their current circumstances. Today, however, we all have a digital footprint. So while the internet has brought so many wonderful things, it clearly has a down-side. Should people live in fear and paranoia over information that will never go away? The United States has just embarked on a new journey in the world of internet privacy. The European Union has had the “right to be forgotten” since 2014 and seems to still be ironing out the details.
For the United States, there are many different facets to coming to an agreement that will protect the right to individual privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, while also providing accurate, current information in search engines. The age of technology is upon us and it seems apparent that we need to be able to figure out the best ways to create legal frameworks that would allow for the balance between current and accurate information, while also allowing for some control over outdated and irrelevant information that creates the online image that has the potential to ruin people’s lives.
Gordon, C. (2012, October). Guidance Counselor Tiffani Webb Fired for Sexy Photos taken in 1990s. Web log post, retrieved 2015, July from jobs.aol.com
Morran, C. (2015, July). Should We Have The Right To Be Forgotten” By Google In U.S.? Web log post from http://consumerist.com/2015/07/07/should-we-have-right-to-be-forgotten-by-google-in-u-s/
Wikipedia (2015, July). Right to be Forgotten. Web log post, retrieved 2015, July from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_be_forgotten