The Right to Revise Personal History

The European Court of Justice requires Internet search firms to accommodate requests from the pubic who want a story removed from search results when the story links to personal information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” This new right is usually called the “right to be forgotten.”

Google has removed search access to an estimated 50,000 stories, responding to requests by parties who felt the stories were lacking in appropriate merit.  At the end of May 2014, Google placed a removal request form on its European search site, making it easier to revise the record of one’s personal history, at least in Europe.   

To be blunt, the right to be forgotten is mainly about erasing the record of one’s earlier misdeeds.  Germany and France seem more sympathetic to this theme than do other countries.

As it stands today, suppression of a story in European search results does not mean the story is suppressed in US search results.  That asymmetrical outcome will at the margin reduce the use of European search in favor of using US search – just as good money will drive out bad.

In the US, some favor a “right to be forgotten,” but it is difficult to square with other people’s first amendment rights to publish opinions containing factual references that may embarrass some others.  For example, credit reports may contain accurate but negative information on your creditworthiness.  Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the negative information ages out after a few years. 

The same negative information could be included legitimately in a news article which is protected by first amendment rights.  Of course, the credit reporting laws would not apply there and an expensive court proceeding would be needed to even attempt suppressing the unflattering personal information.

In the US, a record of childhood convictions is often sealed, or with additional judicial involvement it can be expunged from public records.  But the factual news coverage of the events may live on forever.

The first amendment trumps some ephemeral right to be forgotten.  On the other hand, there may be instances where perpetual reminders of unfortunate behavior are not in society’s interest.  A determination like that should require more than completing an online form.

Alan Daley writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.  For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.

 

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