Google recently unveiled a system which enables citizens of the European Union to ask the search engine to remove results from its listings. The move comes in response to a landmark European Union court ruling which gave people there the "right to be forgotten."
Beginning last week, Europeans who want personal information removed from search results can make their case directly to Google via an online form. And even though, as with everything with Google, the requests must be made online, the final decision on what information will be removed from search results will be made by actual people - not one of Google's famed algorithms. According a story from the BBC, disagreements about whether information should be removed or not will be overseen by national data protection agencies.
I asked my friend Brook Zimmatore, owner of the brand protection agency Massive in the United Kingdom, about the situation. While it may seem like fabulous news and great precedent for individuals who want information removed from search results, Zimmatore is more circumspect.
"Google has carefully controlled this case to provide minimal removal options," he says. "Initially what we are seeing is the right to correct outdated personal records such as private information, phone numbers, financial details, address, current employment, etc. Public records, alleged defamation and bona fide news stories are unlikely to be removed."
While this news is biggest in Europe, it also affects the ongoing debate in the United States about privacy and information posted on the Internet about private U.S. citizens. It makes me wonder, what qualifies as something falling under the "right to be forgotten" and if such a policy might find its way to U.S. shores.
For starters, this new policy is only going into effect for countries within the E.U. Google's submission form asks what country you are from, and the "United States" is not an option. Further, Google requires that anyone asking for personal information to be removed to provide identification, so you can't make a removal request on behalf of someone else.
But who and what deserves to be forgotten? This is a fascinating debate which might rage for a long time. The BBC article includes a sidebar about a man in England who lost his job after his employer learned of a drunk driving conviction that preceded his employment. The man was never asked about it on his employment application but, later, someone found evidence of his conviction online, and he was sacked. This man believes he has the right to have his drunk driving conviction "forgotten." (It's important to note that while the story doesn't describe the man's vocation, it does say that he is not a chauffeur, bus driver or the like.) He made a mistake which he hopes will not continue to haunt him. To me, this seems like a reasonable request which Google could grant.
Yet the waters are so much murkier. Having grown up before the digital age, I'm fortunate that the things I hope remain forgotten (#fraternity, #UniversityofFlorida) were never cataloged online. Folks who have had indiscretions since the Internet proliferation are not as lucky. Does a person have the right to have a photo of them taking a bong hit removed from search? Perhaps so. But what if that person is Micheal Phelps? Maybe not. If Kim Kardashian decides to ditch her camera-starved ways and live a monastic lifestyle in Montana, does she deserve to someday be forgotten? We probably say no because she's a public figure and famous.
But what about infamy? Would we no longer have a right to exploit that? Does Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman have a right to have his infamous foul-ball-interference moment forgotten? While Cubs fans will never forget how he may have cheated them of a World Series appearance, does he have a right to be removed from search results?
While the right to have some personal information removed from web searches is currently confined to the E.U., it seems that it has potential to migrate across the Atlantic. I have a friend who was born in Wales but married an American. He holds dual citizenship, so could he ask for information to be removed from search using his British passport as identification but submitting it from his office in Florida?
Can I finally cash-in on my Polish ancestry and make an argument that I'm as European as my long-lost relatives on that continent?
And here's another question: What if Google's efforts in the E.U. turn out to be well received and uncontroversial? Might the worldwide search engine itself migrate the policies to the United States and the rest of the planet.
I will leave the legal arguments to the attorneys and free-speech advocates, but it seems to me that, while tricky to judge, the right to be forgotten is an intriguing option that could find its way to America. I wouldn't expect to see it anytime soon, but it's certainly worthy of discussion. In the meantime, you are still stuck calling those of us in reputation management to help with your online issues.