In his Oscar-winning screenplay for 2010’s “The Social Network,” Aaron Sorkin penned the line, “The Internet isn’t written in pencil ... it’s written in ink.”
Millennials, whether listening or not, have been warned of the permanency of what they post online for years. Seniors, over half of whom are now active online, according to the Pew Research Center, are likely learning the same rule: Once something is posted online, it can be impossible to erase from cyberspace.
The constancy of the Internet’s memory was rattled in May when the European Court of Justice ruled that individuals have “the right to be forgotten” by forcing Google to remove links to certain disgraceful articles, personal photos and other information, The New York Times reported.
The process of forgetting, however, is not synonymous to disappearing. The information is still online but the law now requires Google to remove any links to that information within its search engines for users in the European Union, The Wall Street Journal clarified.
The removal of each link would be done on a case-by-case basis. For example, if the information is deemed inaccurate it can be removed. Yet even if the information is accurate, it can still be removed on the grounds of being “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive”, according to a factsheet on the ruling issued by the European Commission.
“In the first few days after the ruling, about 1,000 Europeans asked Google to take down links, with about half having criminal convictions and half not,” The New York Times reported. “The requests included an actor seeking to expunge links to articles about an affair with an underage girl and a doctor seeking to take down negative reviews.”
The ruling has revealed a tug-of-war between two cherished rights: free speech and privacy.
Joseph Steinberg, CEO of SecureMySocial argues that the United States already has measures in place similar to the European Court’s ruling.
“If you miss a mortgage payment, 10 years later that’s not on your credit report, even though that is pertinent (information) and it’s something that happened; by law, it’s removed,” he declared in Forbes. “Technology has undermined our existing rights to be forgotten. The question is: How do we do fix that correctly?”
Some view the European Court’s ruling as a dangerous blow to free speech.
“The Internet is, in effect, a library of unimaginable size -- full, as all libraries are, of news, gossip, archive material and other stuff which may to varying degrees be irrelevant, wrong or mad,” The Economist asserts. “Search engines should be like library catalogues -- comprehensive and neutral, and without fear or favour of what the contents may reveal, or how they may be used. It should be up to individuals, not governments, to distinguish what is right or wrong, useful or immaterial.”
The debate also brings to surface the clashing desires of holding people accountable and allowing them to move on.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Sharon Dietrich, the litigation director of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, articulated the challenges former convicts face as they make their way back into society during a digital age.
“Back in the day, criminal records kind of faded away over time. … They existed, but you couldn’t find them,” she stressed. “Nothing fades away anymore. I have a client who says he has a harder time finding a job now than he did when he got out of jail, 30 years ago.”