Online, there are no take backs, as everyone should know by now. If someone goes Googling for the social media crumbs you have left behind, they're going to find them. That's how social media works: The personal details that should best stay private travel farthest. You can try to cajole your friend to delete that drunken party pic, rescind that careless tweet bashing your boss, but once it's out there, it's out there.
But why should it be? When does the individual right to what privacy experts call "informational self-determination" precede free speech? Avner Levin, the director of the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute at Ryerson University offers this example: "Say I cross Yonge and Dundas here [in Toronto] and one of the many private sector cameras catches me picking my nose. It could make one of those funny videos that people love to watch. Why shouldn't I have the right to remove that embarrassing moment from the record?"
A new ruling from the European Union's highest court says you should have the right - at least when it comes to whether the information in question pops up in a Google search if someone, such as a prospective employer or love interest, googles your name. The "right-be-forgotten" ruling would require Google to remove links at the request of private individuals even if the material is true, and not libelous, but just embarrassing.
To be clear, as Levin points out, the ruling only applies to Google, not the original source of the information. A newspaper with the story or a public registry containing the information would not be required to erase it. And the court, Levin says, recognized a distinction between politicians and celebrities and private citizens, as well as information about which the public has the right to know. For instance, the case came about because a Spanish man wanted an old link removed that related to property being auctioned off because he hadn't paid a welfare debt. The court's decision would require Google to close the link, but the original source of the information would stand.
Understandably, there are free speech concerns that the decision will have Google erring on the side of caution and deleting links it shouldn't, given the potential for a deluge of requests from people wanting salacious material excised from their online selves. But Google already has a process for this – when it comes to copyright infringement. "We have all these mechanisms set to look after corporate commercial interests, but we're not willing to do that with respect to people's humility and vulnerability?" asks Levin.
Europe has approached privacy with the later question in mind, says Levin, focusing on the dignity of the individual. (In North America, he contends, our debate centres more on government or corporate access to our information, not how it affects our personal reputation with others.) The EU, he says, "has really tried to push against the idea that everything collapses online into one big mush."
Why shouldn't people be allowed to whitewash their past, especially if they didn't put the information out there in the first place or intentionally blur the boundaries between private and public social circles themselves? Why should Google's algorithm create our "personal dossiers," as Levin puts it, without the legal onus to dump that first hit about some high-school humiliation if we object?
Technology hasn't solved this problem yet; even with privacy settings, information leaks into open space. Consider privacy discussion around Ottawa's new cyber-bullying law. There have been valid concerns raised – including from one victim's family – that loosening the rules under which online information can be provided to authorities infringes on privacy.
But what about the victims? Shouldn't they also have a legal right to have the information about them – even the stories or blogs that pop up on top of a Google search for their name – be limited somehow? If search engine results are indeed the new resume, does that experience have to follow them so prominently forever? Today in Canada, there's no legal right; aside from going through Google's regular channels, says Levin, people can pay private companies to tweak the web so that unwanted links appear many pages into the search, rather than at the top.
The EU law isn't perfect. The difference it will make is uncertain – and this is definitely not the last Google-related court case. The law is, by nature, a balancing act. In the end, of course, we should all practice far more sense and care with the personal information we dump online. But governments and companies also reap benefits from the data we provide, even unwittingly. Sometimes, they should have to follow our rules.