The beauty of the Internet is that it accumulates once-unimaginable stores of information and makes them accessible instantly from anywhere with the click of a mouse. But if you believe the European Court of Justice, that's not a feature; it's a bug.
The court recently upheld what is known as "the right to be forgotten." If you do something you would rather people didn't know about, the World Wide Web is not your friend. It retains such items permanently, allowing search engines to find them. The court says that needs to change. After a certain amount of time has passed, it decided, people should be able to lock unwelcome incidents away.
The verdict came in a suit by a Spanish lawyer who wanted to suppress a 1998 legal notice that his house was being repossessed to pay his debts. He has since gotten his financial affairs in order and resented that the information kept popping up on Google and other search engines. He went to court and won. Though the evidence will remain online, search engines will be required to sever the links that allow users to find it.
This policy may sound like a potential blessing to anyone who's ever been involved in anything mortifying and public, or anyone who's ever posted a tweet or a photo only to regret it. But the decision has ominous implications for those who value unrestricted access to valuable knowledge.
You may not want the world to know you got arrested on a minor charge in your youth. But you might like to be able to learn everything possible about the prospective suitor who seems too good to be true. The trade-off we all make for infinite information is less ability to protect secrets, and on net, it's clearly a beneficial deal. That's why Internet users sign up for entertaining sites that suck up large quantities of personal data for marketing purposes.
In the United States, it's not likely a "right to be forgotten" policy would ever gain traction. Barring Web firms from disseminating accurate material merely because someone doesn't like it would violate constitutional rights. The rule decreed by the European Court would let bad actors conceal facts that others might regard as vital. As legendary First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams put it, "The United States seeks to protect privacy in a variety of ways but not by criminalizing truth-telling."
The danger in Europe is that Google & Co. will adopt a practical default custom of taking down items when anyone objects. If there is some legal risk, search engines will be under strong pressure to err on the side of denying access to information.
The impact of a permanent record that you can't escape may seem greater now than it will be in the future. If everything people do is retained forever, people are likely to place less importance on minor misconduct than they did when such episodes tended to fade away. More knowledge will breed more forgiveness.
Not only that, but if many people feel an urgent need to suppress evidence of their past mistakes, they are not defenseless. Internet tools already offer ways to fight back.
Michael Fertik, founder of Reputation.com, told MarketWatch that anyone who's worried can manipulate search results to lessen the risk: "Claim your Google real estate now. Create videos and blogs in your name and create your own URL with your first and last name. Post photos of yourself on your site and tag with your name." No doubt other entrepreneurs are brainstorming creative ways to make unwelcome information less visible.
That's a better way to address the problem than a government-imposed censorship regime. In the Internet age, information wants to be free. As a rule, it's best to let it.