It used to be easier to be a fugitive. You could run away from fame, like Greta Garbo, or from justice, like Ronnie Biggs, the infamous train robber. It was possible to outrun a past that was largely confined to faded newspaper clippings.
The Internet, in some ways, has acted like an electronic leash, tying a person to all of her past deeds, whether heroic or ill-advised. Her entire history lives in the electronic present, available to anyone – potential boyfriend, potential boss – at the touch of a few keystrokes. But that all might change, with a landmark decision in Europe.
People have "a right to be forgotten," according to the European Union's Court of Justice, Europe's top judicial body. Ruling on the case of a Spanish lawyer who no longer wanted to be dogged by online mentions of a long-ago bankruptcy, the court decided that people had the right to an electronic eraser. That is, they could ask Google to delete search-engine references to themselves that were outdated, irrelevant or inadequate.
The ruling caused a great roar of disbelief from Silicon Valley to Brussels. While it was welcomed by privacy advocates and some legal experts, the keepers of the electronic gates and defenders of free speech were furious. Google said it would have to hire an "army" of experts to scrub search results. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, called it "one of the most wide-sweeping Internet censorship rulings that I've ever seen." He told the British Broadcasting Corp.: "If they have to start coping with everybody who whines about a picture they posted last week, it's going to be very difficult for Google."
The details of how this might play out in a world of one billion websites are murky at best. Is a years-old criminal charge out of date? Is a corruption investigation of a politician ever "irrelevant," even decades after the fact? Will other search engines have to comply? References to public figures and companies are apparently exempt, but those boundaries will have to be tested in court.
It's important to note that the ruling applies only to search results, not pages containing the actual references. As legal scholar Peter Noorlander explained in a blog post, imagine the Internet as a vast library of websites, and Google as the card catalogue. The EU ruling is effectively "straitjacketing the librarians."
The information that people want to hide will still be there, just more difficult to access. At this point, the Internet is already a large game of hide-and-seek: Corporations or rich individuals can "scrub" their records by using one of the numerous online reputation management companies that have sprung up in the past few years. Negative reviews? Banished to the back pages. Unsightly comments? Gone. As one of the reputation consultants told Forbes magazine, there is a joke in her industry: "Where do you hide a dead body? On the third page of Google results."
Young people who have grown up with smartphones in hand are already well aware of the electronic footprint they leave. Knowing that employers scour social media and that everyone Googles before a first date, they make some effort to delete pictures of that last vodka shooter on a beach in Daytona. A survey last year found that 75 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds had deleted something online that they felt might harm their opportunities in the future. Schools are now teaching kids how to be media-savvy and look out for themselves on social-networking sites. It's part of growing up, like learning to drive or shower every day: You have to claim responsibility for your online presence.
Which leaves the people who don't want their trail followed, because it leads somewhere shady and suspicious. So far, according to the BBC, Google has received take-down requests from a doctor with bad reviews, a politician seeking re-election who didn't like stories about his previous time in office and a man convicted of owning pedophilic porn.
It is, of course, in Google's own interests to highlight the most heinous examples, and the company hasn't yet said how many other requests it has received or how long it might take to deal with the EU ruling. The court decision has opened the doors onto a twisting and dangerous road. To remove traces of someone's past is tantamount to altering the historical record, and that's not a path that leads to the light.