Tens of millions of people have had the painful experience of cruising the Internet and discovering something mortifying — about themselves. And many have immediately been seized with some variation of the following question: How do I make that go away before my parents/spouse/boss can see it?
For Europeans, the answer became clearer this week when the continent’s highest court ruled that individuals have a right to demand that Google-search links to unflattering material be deleted, a step toward what privacy advocates there have christened “the right to be forgotten.”
But those seeking a similar right in the United States have stumbled upon the expansive free-speech protections in the First Amendment. Blocking access to even the most damaging information — mug shots, videos of intimate acts, or Web pages created by cyber-stalkers — can be difficult and often impossible, experts say. Online news accounts of past personal problems are even harder to leave behind.
“In the United States, we’re going to be sorting out two pieces of our own identity. We are a land of second chances, and we are a land of freedom of expression,” said Meg Leta Ambrose, a technology policy professor at Georgetown University who has studied the drive to create a “right to be forgotten.”
The tensions are particularly acute in cases involving victims of sexual violence or online bullying. After Ambrose gave a presentation in Texas in 2012, a young woman approached her with the story of a “friend” — Ambrose assumed it was the woman herself — who had spoken publicly about being a rape victim. Years later, searches of her name prominently featured a news story recounting the crime, to the point that she feared it had defined her reputation to an uncomfortable degree, Ambrose said.
One in four Americans ages 18 to 29 reported being embarrassed or upset by something that appeared online about them, according to a Washington Post poll in November. That ranges from an indiscreet photo or a Facebook post that, in retrospect, seems ill-considered.
“We are walking on eggshells a little bit,” Ambrose said. “A certain right to be forgotten could be liberating.”
In other cases, friends, acquaintances or even former romantic partners post material that subjects would rather see disappear forever. A Pakistani woman who came the United States for college said she was devastated to see pictures of herself wearing Western clothes and drinking alcohol posted online by a stalker from her home country. The pictures — apparently hacked from her e-mail account — shocked her family, causing lasting damage.
The woman, who spoke on the condition that her name not be used, has not returned. “I still feel humiliated. . . . He ruined a lot of things for me,” said the woman, who is 26 and lives in the Midwest. “That profile has been taken down, but people saw it.”
The European ruling grew from a Spanish case in which a man wanted links deleted to information about his 1998 tax problems, which he said were no longer relevant.
The court said that a newspaper pursuing “journalistic purposes” could maintain its online links to coverage of the man’s problems but that Google was merely “processing personal data” in providing search links. Such data, the court ruled, should be deleted at the man’s request, if it was indeed outdated and no longer relevant. U.S. technology companies are bracing for a flood of such requests in Europe.
The distinction between the newspaper and the search engine puzzled some U.S. legal experts, but it seemed appropriate to Kelly E. Caine, a Clemson University psychologist who studies how people interact with technology. Traditionally, the stories published by newspapers were forgotten over time. But search engines, by making such information from newspapers or other sources permanently accessible, have become something akin to a collective consciousness for humankind.
“That is a huge shift. That’s not something we’ve had before the last 20 years. And we don’t know what the cost of that will be,” Caine said. Without the ability to escape personal histories, “there’s no rebirth. There’s no starting over.”
Technology companies sometimes take down information upon request — and occasionally after courts rule that postings are defamatory or in violation of copyright laws. Activists also have built back channels to request the rapid removal of potentially damaging information, such as the locations of domestic violence shelters from mapping services.
“The large, reputable companies have been really super,” said Cindy Southworth, of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Hiring managers say fears of a single unfortunate photo or blog post skewering job prospects may be overblown. Kelly Dingee, the manager of strategic recruiting at Olney, Md.-based Staffing Advisors, said she often uses Google to find e-mail addresses for a person she thinks might be a fit for one of her job openings. Once, when she was looking for contact information for a person she wanted to chat with about a chief financial officer position, she discovered that person was connected to an embezzlement case.
“It did save us from going down a dead end,” she said.
But, Dingee said, Google is not an essential tool in vetting job candidates. Most human-resources professionals, she said, rely on professional background checks to find important records, such as someone’s criminal history. And beyond that, she said, she’s focused on their skills and experience, which she’s more likely to find information about on self-curated
LinkedIn or Twitter pages.
“I’ve really got tunnel vision. I am looking for who they are, what they do,” Dingee said. “I don’t tend to build out their personal life.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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