The point of my previous post was actually to serve as an introduction for my thoughts related to two privacy/digital media news stories from the week:
- Spain Launches First “Right to be Forgotten” Case Against Google
- iSpy Conspiracy: Your iPhone Is Secretly Tracking Everywhere You’ve Been, All the Time
Originally I was going to discuss both of these as related to privacy, but since I just erased everything I wrote I’m going to skip my thoughts on the iPhone case. However, for a level-headed response to what is actually happening I recommend Alex Levinson’s blog post “3 Major Issues with the Latest iPhone Tracking ‘Discovery;“.
Of the two cases I actually find the Google lawsuit to be the most intriguing. In case you didn’t read the article, basically a few Spanish citizens want old internet references about them to no longer pop up in Google searches. This request probably elicits empathy for any of us who have ever (or will ever) publish anything or do anything or think anything that we do not want forever archived in Google databases. I for one wish I could remove a few articles I wrote for a student website back in college. The articles are not inappropriate nor am I ashamed of what I wrote, but rather they are reflections of who I was at a a particular moment in my life. My opinions and views have greatly changed and become much more nuanced since I wrote them at 18 and while I accept that the student website archives all articles, I do wish there were a way to prevent them from popping up in Google searches.
However, I struggle with the legality and ethics of a search engine such as Google censoring or otherwise altering their results based on individuals’ requests. First of all, even if Google were to remove a particular article, page, image, etc. from the search results, there undoubtedly exist other digital copies that could easily be re-shared via other URLs. That is, the requests appear to be rather technologically unenforceable even if Google were to comply.
Additionally, it is likely that the information that is to be removed is not actually owned by the individual making the request (lest they would remove it themselves). If Google removes a webpage, image, etc. from their search results it is likely they are also removing other information found on that page and understandably the owner of the webpage/website may not want this information to be banned from Google search engines. In other words, in order to grant one request would Google be trumping someone else’s request for the information to remain in the search results? How could Google determine on a case-by-case basis when information should be removed from search results and when the rights and requests of others outweigh the request to remove the information?
Furthermore, while private entities such as Google are not obligated to protect freedom of speech, there is a very thin line between respecting the right of the individual to control information about oneself and outright censorship (which goes against Google’s “Do No Evil” policy). How would Google change if they begin to comply to such requests? Who would hear these cases? What criteria should be considered when removing legal, non-slanderous, non-libel, information about an individual? Would it change our perception of Google and the trustworthiness of the search engine? What is at stake if Google were to actually remove information from their search results?
Apart from the legal and ethical decisions of Google, the lawsuit draws attention to some interesting and ongoing debates around issues of privacy and our digital lives. When I wrote the articles for the student website in 2001 there was no Google; there wasn’t the same understanding that everything I put online would not only be archived potentially forever, but more importantly, would be searchable forever. Knowing what I know now I don’t think my 18 year-old self would’ve actually made a different decision. Like I said, the articles are not shameful, inappropriate, or even embarrassing. However, they are a digital archive of what I believed at the time and a reflection of who I was at a pivotal moment in my life. But what does it mean when digital information has a shelf-life of F-O-R-E-V-E-R? (think flashlight and treehouse a la The Sandlot right now).
Certainly we should all carefully consider what we publish, post, share online and be held responsible for these decisions. But even the most diligent person cannot control what others will share about him or her and thus we do not have ultimate control over our digital lives, reputations, and archives. While people do post really stupid stuff in which they most likely deserve the repercussions of their decision, this is not always the case. How does a shelf-life of forever affect our freedom of expression? In an era in which privacy is becoming increasingly difficult to manage, should there be some sort of expiration date for Google searches – a way in which older less pertinent information could be buried deep in the archives of the internet? And if not, then how might we think about our freedom of expression? And how do we teach young people to behave responsibly when we as adults are still trying to figure it out?