My cellphone rang. Caller ID: “Unknown.” I answered, and a man with a British accent and a bad connection identified himself as someone I’d tweeted about five months before. “Your tweet is causing me and my wife distress,” he said, and he asked me to delete it. He was at once friendly and businesslike. You sound like a reasonable person, he said. Let’s be reasonable and do what’s right.
But what was right? When is the past worth burying, and who should get to decide? Those questions have launched an international debate, pitting practices in Europe, which recognizes a “right to be forgotten,” against the United States, where the First Amendment dominates. And way down below all that, here I was, with more power than I welcomed over the reputation of a stranger.
I hadn’t even heard of him until the day I tweeted about him last fall. I’d read a news story identifying him as one of two Brits sued by the U.S. government in 2002 for allegedly selling Web addresses that didn’t work. Part of the scam supposedly preyed on Americans’ post-9/11 patriotism. What jerks, I thought.
The case was settled in December 2002. But the men were back in the news because one or both (it wasn’t public) had invoked the “right to be forgotten” and successfully petitioned Google to exclude links related to the case from the search results associated with one or both of their names. (The right to be forgotten applies to all search engines, but Google tends to get the most attention because it has more than 90 percent of the market share in Europe.)
It seemed wrong that they could so easily clear their names. So I took to Twitter, the tool of choice for self-appointed Internet sheriffs. “Sketchy businessmen trying to scrub their reputations,” I wrote, repeating their names (which I won’t do here), urging others to do the same and linking to the news story.
Justice? I think maybe one person retweeted it. Catharsis? Totally! Then I moved on to other momentary causes.
But in the following months, in part because Google removed links on this businessman’s behalf, my tweet developed outsize stature, becoming one of the top hits when someone searched his name. I don’t know if he tried to get Google to exclude it, too, or whether he thought he’d try to persuade me to delete it first. Either way, he managed to track me down.
On the phone, he swore he’d run a legitimate business. He said he was found not to be at fault. Then he sent me a PDF of the settlement so I could see for myself.
The document noted that he didn’t admit “any wrongdoing whatsoever.” But he and his companies had to turn over $300,000 for “consumer redress,” which seemed a tacit admission of guilt. Yet the settlement stated that it shouldn’t be used as evidence for or against him. In other words, it couldn’t resolve my predicament. I’d need to consult other sources.
“The question is: Is this information still relevant, does it have bearing on the individual, and is there still a public interest in this information?” said Deirdre Mulligan, a professor who studies Internet privacy at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information. The European Court of Justice ruled last year that privacy rights should trump the public’s right to know when information is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive.” Some of the other links about my British businessman may have been removed because they were from before his case was settled and led to an incomplete record of history, Mulligan said. Or maybe Google decided that the case was simply so old, and the specifics so obscure, that it was no longer relevant to people searching the Internet.
I contacted Google, but a spokesman wouldn’t comment on individual cases, and my e-mails to two members of the company’s right to be forgotten advisory team went unanswered. The best information I could find was in the company’s Transparency Report. There, Google says it has reviewed requests to remove almost 1.2 million URLs and has removed about 42 percent of them. The report outlines a few specific cases that suggest Google isn’t particularly forgiving to criminals. A man in the Netherlands asked the search engine to remove 50 links to articles about a “public outcry over accusations that he was abusing welfare services.” A man in Italy asked for the removal of 20 links to articles written when he was arrested and accused of financial crimes. Both requests were refused. Meanwhile, the search engine has granted removal to a rape victim in Germany who was named in a newspaper story and an Italian woman whose name was included in a decades-old story about her husband’s murder. These women wanted to move on, and I’m glad they were able to.
I don’t object on principle to the idea of removing unwanted memories from the Internet. If every regrettable thing we did became part of a permanent social record, we’d all end up bitter and friendless. But the pre-Internet world could be dangerously forgetful. Beyond the context of small towns with long memories, some misdeeds were too easily escaped. Now that we have technology that never forgets, we need a humane balance between valuable information and merciful ignorance.
That was my thinking when I agreed to delete embarrassing personal stories that I’d solicited and published on a blog in high school. Years later, as the old posts were being discovered by prospective bosses and boyfriends, many of the people who submitted stories begged me to take them down. The way I saw it, those stories were theirs to tell — and theirs to revoke.
I’ve also dealt with more morally challenging requests. I was poking around the live-streaming app Periscope one day and landed on video from a British bar. When a particularly attractive woman came onto the screen, the commenters did what commenters do best: They became nasty. “Tits NOW,” one wrote. I quickly took a screencap and tweeted the image, calling out the abuser by name (because, whoops, his Periscope username was also his real name). This set off a few days of angry e-mails from him, a businessman in Florida. I ignored them all. Then he wrote me a heartfelt note admitting his error and pleading: “Your tweet includes the mentioning of my name and it will show up in multiple search databases including Google etc. Because one man makes a stupid mistake it does not make it any better by doing this.” My wife read that and took his side. I’d made my point, she said, and now I was just being a bully. I hated to hear that, but she was right. I deleted the tweet.
My tweet about the British businessman was a tougher call. He’s not a public figure, but there’s a public record of his alleged misdeeds. He was never found liable, but the allegations alone may be relevant to potential business partners or customers of any other companies he becomes involved with. His case was settled more than a decade ago. But the topic of my tweet — his questionable effort to erase his past from the Internet — remained fresh.
In my gut — the place where pride and instinct mix with the blind faith that my own actions are always the most justified — there was a logic to keeping the tweet up. I had an obligation to help keep this information from being “forgotten.” But then I began to question myself. I didn’t know the fullness of his life. I was just some guy who read something about some other guy and then reacted. Internet users have done that many times before, to consistently terrible results.
Eight days had passed since he first contacted me, and he had become agitated. He was now calling or e-mailing multiple times a day. I was feeling harassed. And he was feeling litigious. He finally wrote that I had until 5 p.m. to take the tweet down or he would sue me for defamation.
I reached out to a media lawyer I’d worked with at an earlier job. He said that I’d probably beat a defamation charge in a U.S. court but that the process could be expensive. I have a mortgage and a baby. I can’t afford to fight a lawsuit, regardless of the eventual outcome. The reality gnawed at me: The winner of this fight, like so many others, would be the one willing to spend more money. I wish there was a definitively right thing to do. There isn’t. Google is imperfect, and so is the “right to be forgotten.” For now, we just have our names, added and removed from the Internet one at a time.
At 4:59 p.m., I deleted the tweet.
I e-mailed the man to let him know, and we exchanged a few unpleasant, unsatisfying words. Then we went back to our own digital lives.