Opinion: Google starts forgetting in Europe. Should it do so in the U.S. too?

Spanish lawyer Mario Costeja fought for six years to get Google to erase a search result for his name that linked to an article on debt-related property auctions.
Spanish lawyer Mario Costeja fought for six years to get Google to erase a search result for his name that linked to an article on debt-related property auctions.
(Cabalar / EPA)

Google started its forget-me-now program in Europe on Thursday, complying with an order handed down by the continent’s highest court last month. Under that order, individuals can demand that Google remove links to information that they consider “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive.”

The news prompted at least one Google critic, John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, to argue that the company should be doing the same thing closer to home. “The Internet giant should offer U.S. users the same basic right to privacy,” Simpson declared in a news release.

The problem, as Simpson acknowledges, is that there is a tension between an individual’s desire to have past indiscretions fade from society’s collective memory and the public’s interest in an accurate historical record. And that tension is next to impossible to resolve.


The order by the European Union’s Court of Justice left it up to Google to decide how to balance the competing interests. Individual privacy interests override the public’s right to know “as a general rule,” the court held, but the exact balance will depend in part on “the role played by the data subject in public life.”

In other words, anyone who might hope to run for a European office in the future should start obliviating as much of the public record as they can now, before they actually play a role in public life. That’s particularly true for those whose youthful indiscretions include criminal activity, hate speech or a fondness for Nazi memorabilia.

Proponents of the “right to be forgotten” are less troubled by that prospect than they are by the dramatic expansion the Internet has caused in the public record. Social media and online sharing sites have brought enormous amounts of previously private information into the public sphere. Meanwhile, the combination of digitized government records, open archives and powerful search engines have made it easy to pull together a comprehensive profile about individuals from snippets of information that used to be hidden in the dense bureaucratic underbrush.

As Simpson put it: “The Digital Age has ended that [privacy by obscurity]. Everything -- all my digital footprints -- is instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device.”

But while some yearn for the days before the elephantine memory of the Internet kept the past from fading from the public consciousness, others (such as myself) expect society to adapt to the reality of information persistence. Apps such as Snapchat are the first iteration of this. People will also demand more ability from service providers to keep a measure of control over the data they post, so that their contributions aren’t preserved in virtual amber on a personal timeline or a sharing site.

Because, let’s face it, there’s something good about the vast expansion of the available data set, just as there’s something bad. More information yields better research. More accessible information means that the masses can more easily fact-check their leaders’ claims and vet the people they do business with.


Simpson says simply giving someone the right to ask for a link to be removed doesn’t mean the link will actually be taken down. And the data in question will remain online; the data just won’t be discoverable through a Google search. For instance, if the item in question is a newspaper article from 2000 about a business that went bankrupt, doing a Google search on the owner’s name wouldn’t produce any links to the story. Someone browsing through the newspaper’s archives from that year, however, could stumble upon it.

Those aspects of the European order aren’t very reassuring. In Europe, people can appeal to the data privacy bureaucracy when Google refuses to take down their links. There’s no such body here, so would Google be the ultimate arbiter? That’s almost as scary a thought as a group of government appointees and civil servants deciding that this or that nugget of historical information is no longer relevant. And even in Europe, no one protects the public from Google removing a link that should have remained live.

Much of the rhetoric in favor of the “right to be forgotten” concerns the ill-advised things that people do when they’re young (ironically enough, an age presumed to be the most tech-literate). And I could be persuaded about the merits of a forget-me-now mandate tailored to items by or about those under 21. What started happening in Europe, however, is not so narrow.

Follow Healey’s intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey