Following a ruling from Europe's highest court, Google has been inundated with requests to remove personal information from the Web that has been deemed "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant."
The right to be forgotten has become a central issue in the digital age, where Web-based personas with false or outdated information can be tied to individuals and, in essence, could haunt them for life. While the ruling applies only in the European Union, the U.S. is clamoring for similar legislation, according to a recent survey.
A dental patient who receives promotions from a teeth-whitening company might want his data erased to prevent unwanted marketing. Or a bank customer might want information erased that falsely links him to credit problems, for example.
According to a May survey of 1,104 respondents by Internet market research firm YouGov, various kinds of Web-based content has raised concerns. Forty-two percent said they would like to remove their information from Web browsers. While financial information was the most cited reason (35%), many also worried about links to ex-partners or ex-friends (29%), as well as malicious content from these sources (28%) and links to embarrassing pictures (28%).
What type of material would you remove?
Many respondents view the right to be forgotten as inherently linked to their right to privacy, and only 17% view legislation similar to Europe's as a potential violation of free speech rights (17%) -- though 35% worry it could promote censorship on the Internet or fraudulent activity (30%).
Recently, a professor at Oxford University cast doubt on the benefits of the ruling, given the open nature of information exchange on the Web.
Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy and the ethics of information at Oxford, said the ruling has "raised the bar so high that the old rules of the Internet no longer apply." Others have argued similarly, saying the openness of the Web is totally at odds with revising this kind of information.
And even if the Internet is no longer the Wild, Wild West according to such legislation, good governance still raises some basic questions about the mechanics of expunging information. Who will be responsible for removing it, and will this be a "democratic, transparent" process? So, for example, will Google elect a panel to review the veracity of information and links? Will the removal of information be subject to legal scrutiny before it can be removed? These are just some of the uncertainties that may introduce trouble for Google in attempting to manage the reputations of European citizens -- and possibly those in the U.S., as well.
For companies that are the stewards of such information, the burden of proof will reside with them if they believe such information should be retained.