The case of Jacqueline Laurent-Auger, a 73-year-old drama teacher who lost her job after films in which she appeared nude more than 40 years ago were rooted out on the Internet by high school students, is another stark reminder of how one's distant past can be dredged up and disseminated online, with unsettling consequences.
Brébeuf College, an elite private school in Montreal, terminated Laurent-Auger's teaching contract after 15 years, when some of her acting work from the 1960s and 1970s was discovered by students (titles include Swedish Sex Games and The Secret Diary of a Nymphomaniac).
While the teacher received widespread sympathy in Quebec and beyond, Brébeuf was accused of retroactively "slut-shaming" a 73-year-old woman. Officials have since back-pedaled: the school has reportedly reached out to Laurent-Auger to discuss rehiring her "in new functions," meaning she might not get her old drama teaching job back.
The case points to a key debate surrounding privacy and the Internet: Should there be a statute of limitations on how we punish ill-advised behaviour that sprouts up online, especially decades after the fact – whether that past is ferreted out maliciously or posted innocuously by a friend on #tbt? Or should we collectively be rethinking our own reactions when a juicy tidbit bubbles up online from somebody's ancient past?
Laurent-Auger's termination was different than getting canned for gaffes made on Twitter in real time. The grounds for her dismissal involved films she made offline decades ago, films wrought into the present by the Web and now a distraction to the student body, Brébeuf officials had argued initially. "The availability on the Internet of erotic films in which she acted created an entirely new context that was not ideal for our students," read a statement from the school released on Sunday. The Internet had brought the "erotic portion of [Laurent-Auger's] career into the present," officials explained.
"This is something that, not just schools, but we're all going to have to get used to: Our past can easily become our present and become so much more visible," says Alfred Hermida, an associate professor of social media at the University of British Columbia who wrote the new book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters.
While Hermida understands the school's initial reaction, he says, "We need to find a way of making smart decisions about that and not reacting with, 'We think your past is wrong so we're going to condemn you for what you did 40 years ago.' "
Andrew Clement, a University of Toronto professor in the faculty of information, argues that the massive search and storage capabilities of the Internet "warp our conventional sense of time and unsettle familiar understandings of what is public and private."
"It is most unfortunate that actions taken in one's youth may be used punitively decades later. This can disproportionately victimize relative innocents, as in this case," Clement said in an e-mailed response.
Although Laurent-Auger was defiantly unrepentant about the lightly erotic films, there's a possibility she could have scrubbed Swedish Sex Games from Google altogether, were she in Europe, where a kind of statute of limitations already exists for the Internet.
In May, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Google and other search engines must remove certain links upon request. According to the EJC, unless there is a "preponderant" public interest, people have a right to erase certain results that appear with Web searches of their names, specifically when the information linked to is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which [it was] processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed."
In essence, people in 32 European countries have the right to ask to be forgotten. According to Business Review Europe, 145,000 requests have already been made across Europe since spring. Google has nixed more than 25,000 unwelcome links for Germans and 29,000 for the French, who prize their privacy. To file a claim, applicants have to provide a name, the link they'd like scrubbed from the search engine and an explanation for why the material is "irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise objectionable." According to the New Yorker, most applicants submit four links each.
Google has reportedly hired a team of lawyers and paralegals to wade through case by case, taking into factors like what is the purpose of the information linked to, how much time has passed and is the person in public life. (A sampling of the requests – accepted and denied by Google – here.)
Technology companies as final executors of our privacy and our pasts: It's a testament to the uncharted territory here.
"Google has been reluctantly cast in the role of pan-European judge and jury of the Internet's collective memory, responsible for deciding (behind closed doors) what constitutes the continent's public interest," wrote Vice's Katie Engelhart.
Hermida says the right to be forgotten law is a somewhat clumsy way of navigating privacy in a digital era: "We used to think of privacy as controlling what other people knew about us. That definition of privacy doesn't apply and can't apply any more. Instead we have privacy through obscurity. [The EJC is] trying to essentially say, 'This material was obscure. How can we make it obscure again?' "
Although the European ruling means objectionable links disappear when you're scanning results for a person's name on a search engine, the material is not deleted at the source. Nor does the ruling apply to social-media websites and their plethora of embarrassing content, which you can mostly delete or untag yourself from. While it's not an outright deletion of the past, the de-linking process serves as a "speed bump" on the road to searching it out online.
Critics of the right to be forgotten law argue that it favours privacy over free speech. They're also questioning how technology companies have been deemed arbiters of what's in the public interest and what isn't.
Other critics say this digital statute of limitations may be tackling the wrong end of the story.
"Although the right to be forgotten law has the right intention, it's not really about allowing people to rewrite their past," says Hermida. "It's about how do we react as a society when almost anything we did in the past can come back and be reinterpreted in a completely different context. These cases force us to think about how we evaluate what people did in the past. Maybe we need to start becoming smarter about how we react to this."
As Clement puts it: "As a society we will need to develop more sophisticated ways for interpreting actions in the past in the wider context of one's total life. This incident offers a 'teachable moment' for such cultural learning."
For its part, Brébeuf said in the latest statement that the school would start examining the role of sexuality and social media in education.