As the faculty adviser to the Corsair newspaper at Santa Monica College, I received a request this weekend from a woman who sounded pretty desperate. An article published online at the Corsair four years ago included background information about her that she no longer wanted public. “This issue has recently affected me in a profound way and I want to remove this once and for all,” she wrote.
On a human level, I felt her pain. Who wouldn’t mind erasing some untidy bits of personal history?
But then the journalism professor took center stage and I was outraged. The story was accurate and the information hardly offensive. The story was already published. To remove it now to suit someone’s whim went against all my journalism training and beliefs.
The Corsair staff explored the issue during class today. It made for a lively ethical discussion of a growing controversy in digital publishing: The Right to be Forgotten. This emerging digital era right was legitimized by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2014 that gave European Union citizens the right to wave a wand over their digital pasts and make them go away. That shoplifting conviction from five years ago reported on by your local online news site? Delisted by Google, as in it never happened. Since the ruling, Google has fielded up to 750,000 requests for specific items to be delisted from its search database.
No such right to be forgotten exists in the U.S. because, well, we are of tougher moral fiber, and believe we need to confront our sordid past lives and carry their weight around forever.
It’s a common belief that your past lives forever on the Internet, a warning to those who post unflattering images and Tweets that often come back to bite them. Doh! The truth is that the digital past endures because of Google alone. Almost all internet searches start with Google.
Digital archives are more ephemeral than people realize. The Internet is littered with dead links and missing pages. And unlike printed media, which exists in a tangible form, publishers can make digital content disappear when they want, such as the revelation last year that BuzzFeed removed more than 4,000 posts from its early existence that weren’t up to its current editorial standards. A great New Yorker article detailed just how much digital publishing is disappearing, highlighting the efforts of Brewster Kahle and San Francisco’s Wayback Machine to preserve it before those bytes of information flitter away.
The Wayback Machine is a valuable resource, but it’s not nearly as handy as researching information using Google. Which means that the future of digital archives lies with Google, not publishers. If Google cuts off links to content, it’s as good as dead to the world.
The woman who contacted me about a past online article in the Corsair really had a beef with Google. She said that every time she entered her name in Google, the Corsair article was the first thing that came up. And she didn’t like it.
Corsair editors agreed to remove the tag of her name from the article attributes but to leave the article intact. But if Google decides to break a link to the article, it’s as good as having the article de-published, and that seems like a lot of power to put in the hands of a search engine.