The Internet has never been an easy place for policy. Within the U.S. borders, we have ongoing debates about things like access, copyright, and identity. Once we consider of the digital interactions organizations have outside those borders, any internal resolutions we may have made may be thrown out the window as a different culture gets involved.
That is what is happening with Spain’s lawsuit against Google, which is claiming that individuals have a “right to forget” in ordering the search engine to remove links to embarrassing content for 90 people. Google refused that request in January and is now in a Spanish court.
The Right to Forget
On the Pro side of this debate is the control individual’s would have over their digital footprint. The concerns are much greater for data volunteered under one context (e.g., registering to play a game) but re-sold to different contexts (e.g., mailing lists to spammers). In the case of the Google suit, however, Spain wants the online equivalent of being able to remove articles from printed newspapers. There is a big distinction to be madeâ€”and I hope that any policy-making decisions do understand this differenceâ€”between someone providing private data that is used in an unauthorized way and data generated because the world was paying attention to something you did in public.
Google is most concerned over what selective revisionist history would do to the quality of their search product, but I would argue the larger issue of historical context trumps both the technical concerns of an IT company and any embarrassment an individual has over matters of public record. As Dan Rowinski of R/W/W explains:
For instance, a lot of American history scholars use old broadsides, pamphlets, published letters and news articles to decipher and uncover pertinent historical data that helps us better understand our history. In the current era of technology the equivalent of such data are searchable news records, blog posts, tweets and more. In many ways, Google is the first line of historical preservation.
Rowinski goes on to point out that the online historical can be skewed by technology, too, citing the use of SEO tactics during the 2010 midterm elections to bring embarrassing articles of opponents into prominence during searches.
Idea for Google: Reveal, Don’t Retract
It would seem that the ideal solution is not censoring the public record, nor is it ignoring the concerns of those affected by outdated information. The best way to preserve history is to offer multiple views.
In the past, Google has experimented with Digg-like voting mechanisms that would allow collective user input to adjust the weights on items in search results. What if search results had an easy way for a user to search for refuting articles from a single item? The doctor whose old malpractice suit ranks high on search results for his practice could easily find updated articles that reveal he was acquitted. If enough people perform these searches, perhaps that could trigger dual items showing up together.
The other big need to protect information longevity is what I expect to be a growing trend toward personal reflection. By the time we start to see most social media adopters with 2-3 years of content under their belt, there will certainly be a suite of tools like MemoLane that highlight one’s personal history and encourage reflection. Knowing where you have been makes it much easier to figure out where you are going. While this is often content curated directly by the individual, there is enough public sharing that attempts to pull a given piece of information back out of cyberspace would be a logistical impossibility.
Supporting any policy that allows the selected censorship of public record creates an impractical and damaging mindset that you can correct past mistakes through deletion, rather than improve the quality of what you do in the first place.