A landmark decision by a European High Court requires Web search engines to comply with requests from citizens, to remove links they feel distort their past. On the very day the court upheld an individual’s “right to be forgotten” online, Google received a staggering 12,000 requests from ordinary citizens, proving there is a huge demand for online obscurity. Europe has taken a fierce stance on individuals’ rights in the digital age. Hurray to the judgment I say, and one can only hope it eventually prevails in Asia.
I have always thought it patently unfair that a youthful indiscretion that bears no resemblance to your 35-year-old self can resurface at a moment’s notice with every lurid detail intact. It’s a little like your teenage daily diary being read out in public and the whole world suddenly has the right to comment and jeer at you. We, the guinea pig generation, got carried away while stumbling around the bewildering marvel that is the internet. We couldn’t clearly enough gauge the perils of over sharing and were slow to comprehend the weirdness of it all: mainly, that the Web records everything and forgets nothing. Each online photo, status update or drunken selfie is somewhere out there, for posterity. An embarrassing personal revelation of a long forgotten relationship goes into a permanent database. The internet doesn’t care how you might have evolved in the years since, chances are the top search reveals your worst side. For example, when a video of Delhi school children terrorising a kid went viral, the bullies who were eventually expelled deserve some sympathy as well. They were, peculiarly enough, going through their watershed moment at the ripe old age of 12 because, guaranteed, that recording will chase and haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Everyone deserves a second chance that a Google search can’t skewer with. Forgetting and forgiveness are inextricably intertwined, dependent on each other for people to forge ahead. In a haunting portrait series published in April this year, victims of Rwanda’s genocide posed alongside their perpetrators. The beauty of being human is an ability to appreciate the present and let go of the past. It’s how we attain perspective and is absolutely necessary if we want to live with some measure of peace. But while our values and relationships are constantly evolving, the internet remains stagnant, focussed on our past histories, that may be long over and done with. Perhaps it’s human nature, but salacious, gossip worthy information has a way of sticking in peoples’ hard drives way longer than it should.
A good reputation is a fragile asset, way harder to build than destroy. It’s how people perceive us and is critical for getting through life.
Though ideally it shouldn’t, a tainted history takes the sheen off current accomplishments. We have to have some power to control our identities, reinvent ourselves and not be reminded constantly of old misdemeanours.
More than the right to be forgotten, it’s an individual’s right to self definition, the most precious of freedoms.
This story appeared in print with the headline Total recall