Time for a "Time Out"?

Most news media organizations, from the august New York Times on down, have lined up in varying degrees of opposition - or rather "concern" - regarding the recent decision handed down by the European Court of Justice two weeks ago, in the case involving Google searches and the right of individuals to be "forgotten." The case involved a Spanish attorney who had incurred some debts back in 1998 which had since been cleared up, but those who were interested to know about that could still follow links on Google to the original debt notices that appeared in a local newspaper there, potentially casting him in a bad light.

It hasn't happened often, but from time to time, we here at The Journal have been approached by individuals who were once charged with a crime, and were eventually found innocent, to have the original stories about their arrests taken down from our digital archives, or amended to reflect the fact that the charges didn't stick. Having such a digital trail has hampered their ability to find work, or were simply embarrassing, we were told. And we agreed with them. So we have, in a very few instances, accorded those who asked the courtesy of squaring the record to reflect the fact that the justice system eventually found the original charges to be without merit.

That seemed like the right thing to do, even though some might reasonably conclude that this could impede an unfettered, free flow of information. And our policy will be to proceed on a case by case basis for similar requests in the future. At some point there is a tipping point.

We mention this as background to the case involving Google, the Spanish attorney and the European court because the issues presented in the case raise a similar question that has troubled many when it comes to the seemingly relentless erosion of privacy in the online age: When is too much information just that - too much information? Where is the boundary line between the public's right to know and an individual's right to privacy?

Those questions will be debated further now. In the Google case, all the European court did - and its ruling only applies in Europe, although as a practical matter it will involve Google taking steps that will impact U.S. based searchers - is oblige Google to take down the links to the original, underlying stories individuals can claim relate to instances that are no longer "inadequate, irrelevant or excessive." Fleshing the meaning of those three words out will be an interesting exercise. The original stories will remain; if you're interested in finding them, you'll have to work a little harder or know where to look in the first place.

Do people have a right to be "forgotten" digitally? Probably such a "right" should be roughly the same today as it was in the pre-Internet age. If you decided to run for public office, for example, and had a drunk driving arrest on your record when you were a teenager, should that disqualify you for the political post you are seeking? Of course not, assuming that's not a repeated pattern of behavior and can be dismissed as a youthful mistake. Thirty years ago, a determined researcher might have turned up that tidbit of information and made it public, although it would have taken more work than typing a few words into a search engine. That same standard should obtain today.

The potential for misuse abounds. Anyone with a skeleton or two in their closet - and that's many if not most of us - might think it reasonable to bombard news organizations, Google, and presumably, other global search engine providers with requests, frivolous or not. Will this be an expensive and burdensome task, potentially hampering smaller and less well-financed start ups who, unlike Google, can't afford to hire people to comply with these requests? Possibly. Or it may not be that awful. There are still other ways to unmask a would-be politician with a checkered past. Or an unscrupulous businessperson, or some other high profile individual who didn't always walk the walk, contrary to their public utterances.

The case highlights differences between the American and European mindsets on privacy. Although we typically would defend the more open American approach, here is an instance where maybe it makes sense to declare a "time out" until we catch up with the new freedoms and powers a stunning headlong rush of technological innovation has given us. Between concerns about electronic snooping and phone tapping by the federal government, and the information many of us freely give away about ourselves simply by wandering around on the Web, giving private companies the opportunity to match advertisements to those sorts of web sites you visit, many people rightfully fear for their ability to control what information about themselves is publicly available. Perhaps the best result of this case, flawed though it may be in some respects, will be to force a conversation about the boundary line between a right to privacy and the public's right to know. That is far from a straightforward question.


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