Huffpost Technology
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Pamela Haag Headshot

In a Google World, Do You Have the 'Right to Be Forgotten'?

Posted: Updated:

I have a few self-declared Google-stalker friends. It's a common pastime of the clickerati. They pursue details about their friends' lives and work through habitual online searching.

For myself, though, I make it a point not to Google friends, colleagues or acquaintances, even though I've occasionally broken this rule. I want them to tell me what they want me to know, when they want me to know it. Otherwise, it feels almost like cheating, or an unfair detective novel, in which you know more than you should at a given point in the plot.

Becoming a Google rubbernecker -- gawking at someone's life from afar and finding something insulting or embarrassing there -- reminds me of the prank of pasting a "Kick Me Hard" sign on an unwitting victim's back.

Several Spanish citizens are suing Google over a violation of their "right to be forgotten." They want Google to remove injurious or just dumb information about them from pages that appear when they're Googled.

Typically, online disputes like this are framed as debates over privacy. But the right to be forgotten is also a question of whether we have a right to narrate our own lives for strangers.

Collaterally, Google deprives us of this privilege of autobiography. Instead, our life is now a biography: It's a story, in the aggregate, that's written about you by someone -- or in this case by something -- else. With Google, it's "written" according to what appears about us in a search. And what appears first are pages that Googlers and an inscrutable Google algorithm have elevated to the most popular, enticing or reliable online relics. What emerges is a tessellated portrait, a composite of many pixelated hits, where if we had a chance, we'd naturally smooth those pieces into a story.

The Googler now knows things that can't be unlearned. Our first serial rights to our autobiography -- that uniquely American tabula rasa of a fresh start -- are irrevocably lost. I suspect that we go in to most "new" face-to-face encounters pre-known.

Admittedly, even in the now almost unfathomable pre-Google age, we couldn't control our own story. Friends and family are walking archives of our lives, but usually we can count on them to exercise discretion and to contextualize, if only because we're all mutual conspirators in each other's lives, and not ruthlessly dispassionate algorithms, or casual Google rubberneckers. Most of us were also too lazy, and uninterested, to retrieve all the technically-available but obscure information about a new person that Google delivers for us in two seconds. Google makes knowledge the default setting, whereas before, it was anonymity.

One defense against the "right to be forgotten" is safety. We don't want pedophiles and sexual abusers to be able to hide or to cherry-pick their stories for us. The Google search righteously outs our vices and crimes. But this widespread apprehension that our fellow citizens are all predators, ax murderers, terrorists or pedophiles puzzles me. The vastly more common scenario is that serviceably innocent people with complex lives lose their shot at a pristine autobiography, by no consent or action of their own.

Whether you retain the right to be forgotten, or the privilege of autobiography, might now come down to the random chance of your name. In practice, John Smith retains a makeshift privacy, while John Jacob Jingleheimerschmidt doesn't.

That's because when you Google-stalk a person with a somewhat common last name, you're likely to get thousands of namesakes and false sightings that splice the relevant material about the John Smith you want with other John Smiths and with useless pages that sit like junk DNA in between, material that has so little value that we get tired of wading through the 5K race results and the lists in alumni directories. We surrender ourselves bleary-eyed and obsessively into the Google-clicking trance -- we descend deeply into the labyrinth of links within links within links -- and for this?

The eclectic clutter and the indiscriminate results for John Smith creates a different kind of tabula rasa, because the Google search serves up such an excess of mostly useless, annoying information that it amounts to the same thing as an absence of information.

Jingleheimerschmidt isn't so lucky. His name's rare, so your hits will be fewer, more relevant, and easier to synthesize, sort and read.

Then there are the false biographies that get suggested for your life when a Google stalk yields plausible namesakes, and the searcher construes a nonexistent affinity, or draws a plausible but wrong conclusion...

"You haven't Googled yourself?" a friend from graduate school asked me, when Google was not yet a verb and still a hip novelty. This might have been a decade ago.

I'd never tried it before. When I got home and typed in my name, a few references for me appeared. They were interspersed with a few stories from a local newspaper about another Pamela Haag. She was the survivor of a gruesome crime. She'd been locked in a cellar for weeks and sexually assaulted, and had managed to escape and save herself.

Since I was at the time a scholar of sexual violence and women's studies, I thought that a Google-searcher, if I ever attracted one, might assume that we were the same person, as it's an uncommon name. They'd reasonably think, perhaps, that I'd transformed my personal horror into a scholarly interest, or that this was the tragedy that fueled my work. Easily, they could weave a biography that had logic but no truth.

It wasn't exactly the "other Wes Moore" moment. I didn't elaborate the coincidence of a shared name into anything as grand as a cultural critique. But the story did stay with me, casting a shadow in my mind at occasional, odd moments. I almost came to believe what the search intimated, that we did have an affinity. Google itself put us in the same space, which is close to being in the same autobiography. I wondered about Pamela's life. I wondered if any acquaintance believed me secretly to be that Pamela.

So in this way Pamela in fact did become part of my story, and still is. Maybe our lives are this suggestible and easily infiltrated by other people's stories. They're creations of juxtapositions, and Google just vastly proliferates the juxtapositions.

The "right to be forgotten" -- challenging as it is -- might still prove easier to save than the right to be unconnected.

From Our Partners