The United States fancies itself the land of redemption, rebirth and reinvention, a place of second chances. But if you really want to wipe the slate clean, try moving to Europe.
In May, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that private citizens could force Google to remove search results about them that are not to their liking. This is because the union considers the “right to be forgotten” a fundamental human right. In practice, this means that individuals with checkered pasts have the right to digitally erase said checkers, at least within certain constraints.
The court ruling applies only to listings produced by search engines and other “data controllers,” not newspapers or other media organizations that publish the original content in question. But this has not stopped Europeans from trying to get news media to remove the original content, too. As my Post colleague Caitlin Dewey reported last week, a European pianist recently sent The Post a request to remove a somewhat tepid 2010 review of his performance, one that he claims does not represent the “truth” of his talents. Dejan Lazic says the review unfairly sullied his Google search results for years.
Lazic cannot compel The Post to comply because the E.U. court’s ruling is enforceable only within Europe and doesn’t apply to news organizations. But his case with the continental version of Google is more ambiguous. As of Monday, Google said it had evaluated requests to have 533,905 URLs removed from its index, and 41.8 percent of the ones it has processed have been scrubbed. Many of those “disappeared” links were to other equally innocuous-sounding news articles: such as wedding announcements, a story about French office workers making Post-it art and an article about, of all things, an acrobatics show. The case that kicked off the landmark ruling, by the way, involved a Spanish man’s desire to redact news coverage about a real estate auction required to repay some debts.
Contrast all this with how we treat people’s shady, or not-so-shady, pasts in the United States. If Orwell’s memory hole yawns ever wider in Europe, it is hermetically sealed in America.
Here, sins can remain emblazoned on our job and college applications and sever our access to basic civil rights, in perpetuity. An estimated 5.85 million Americans, for example, are unable to exercise the franchise in Tuesday’s midterm elections because of a felony conviction, with disproportionate impacts on people of color. (One in every 13 black adults across the country cannot vote in this election because of a criminal record, according to the Sentencing Project.) And many millions more won’t make it past a résumé-screener because so many employers say that lawbreakers of any stripe “need not apply.”
There is some progress. Last week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman got three colleges to stop screening out applicants for arrests that did not lead to convictions or that involved sealed or expunged records, or pardons. Other “Ban the Box” efforts around the country have persuaded some localities to force employers, landlords and others in positions of power to stop considering conviction or arrest records in their initial screening phases, or cease otherwise automatically disqualifying applicants with criminal records. But such efforts are necessary precisely because these kinds of blanket litmus tests are so common and can have the effect of nudging those with records back into crime.
If in Europe you can erase an embarrassing indiscretion with a few keystrokes, in the United States such reputational resuscitations are usually available only to elites such as politicians and professional athletes, the few who can successfully spin DUIs, extramarital affairs or drug use into tales of triumph over personal demons. People who have already experienced wealth, fame or power can fall from grace and still redeem themselves — contingent, of course, upon expressing remorse and hiring an expensive PR team.
But for the vast majority of Americans, bad decisions, or allegations of bad decisions, stick with them long after the sentence has been served or the suspicions dropped, and not just because Google makes it easy to retrieve embarrassing tweets and Facebook photos. I don’t think adopting a European-style “right to be forgotten” policy is the answer, but perhaps it is at least time to reevaluate whether we still deserve the back-patting reputation we so often award ourselves as a land that values second chances and mobility for all. That lowest rung on America’s socioeconomic ladder is looking awfully sticky these days.