What Does the “Right to Be Forgotten” Mean?


ON THE morning of July 2, the very midpoint of the year and two days before America celebrated their independence, fireworks, hot dogs, free speech, and freedom of the press– like Seaworld’s ironic Tweet: “Shout out to for their amazing bald eagle rescue,” while simultaneously keeping all of their orcas in captivity, the BBC received the following notification from Google: 

Notice of removal from Google Search: we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google:


The link is to a blog filed in 2007 by BBC reporter Robert Peston, which documents the fall of Merrill Lynch’s then-chairman Stan O’Neal, who made some terrible investments and is considered one of the prime people– thanks to his creating collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which were largely made of subprime mortgage bonds– having contributed to the worst financial crisis in recent decades. In 2008, facing collapse, Merrill Lynch was bailed out of Bank of America. It was, in a word, bad.

Peston initially believed O’Neal to be at the helm of the roadblock, but subsequently found out that it was actually one of the commenters who decided his opinion in 2007 was no longer his opinion in 2014.

As such the article was deemed unsearchable in Europe.

In May of this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its search results when a member of the public requests it as a breech to their privacy. For its part Google opposed the ruling. People seem to like it.

There have been over 70,000 requests, people hedging their bets against their past to make sure their Google search results represent their current standings as upstanding citizens and not angry-somethings commenting as if their keyboard were on fire. But the ruling has raised some fundamental questions about the web, its panoptic memory, and whether the public and key public figures should be held prisoner to past information.

Peston would argue yes, telling Marketplace’s Kai Rysdall, “Given how important the financial crisis turned out to be for all our lives… it seemed to me that unfettered access to those sorts of articles is pretty important, we’ve got to remember that disaster.” Peston called the restrictions an “assault on the free press,” arguing that “If you leave a comment on a public website like the BBC… if in years to come you happen to be slightly embarrassed by what you said, well too bad.”

The economist in Peston would also most likely argue that better information increases efficiency in the market, and in the case of O’Neal, hiring decisions.

For years employers have warned college students to be wary of their Google footprint– to keep the partying and gone wild photos to a minimum, avoid using language in social media that would count as a chit against their potential hiring; basically, act as if you’re being watching, even if you’re not. Spring break will come back to haunt you. As will hunting photos.

Recently Belgium soccer fan Axelle Despiegelaere caught the attention of the World Cup crowd and L’Oreal Professional, after a video of her cheering on her team went viral. But her contract with the beauty brand barely lasted two weeks.  The company released the following statement after a photo of Despiegelaere hunting was published on her Facebook fan page: “L’Oréal Professionnel Belgium collaborated with her on an ad hoc basis to produce a video for social media use in Belgium. The contract has now been completed.” The company has made no public comment on the photo, but L’Oreal is vocally against animal testing. Proving you never know what might come back to bite you.




Many of us are still held hostage to the initial waves we made online, especially in respect to career, even if we did have the foresight to keep the more embarrassing parts of our personal history offline. There are articles we wrote just out of college when we didn’t have the money to pay rent. Click-bait we captioned because we didn’t have a choice. Arguments we engaged in at the bottom of posts when we didn’t know what “trolling” was yet. To all of which Peston would say, “tough cheese.” With the benefits of the Internet, you take the good with the bad, and accept that if you get to read about other people’s pasts, yours is up for the grabbing as well. Sometimes you happen to get grabbed in uncomfortable places seeing as that your professional mistakes, wayward decisions, and poorly placed SHOUTYCAPS, are recorded and saved in detail for anyone who wants to go spelunking.

There are those who argue the opposite of Peston. In his book Delete, The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital AgeViktor Mayer-Schonberger argues that information has a lifespan and it is deleterious to society to presume and act otherwise. Mayer-Schonberger writes, “Google knows more about us than we can remember ourselves.” What the right to be forgotten gives people is the option they’ve had forever: to exit. Leave and don’t look back. Until of course, next week when you get trolled again.

At this juncture we are all held hostage to our choices, but Mayer-Schonberger contests that “for millennia, human beings have lived in a world of forgetting. Individual behavior, societal mechanisms and processes, and human values have incorporated and reflected that fact. It would naive to think that leaving behind such a fundamental part of human nature…would be a painless affair.”

After all, who’s to say what’s no longer adequate or relevant? If we need “an army of paralegals,”– what Google has dubbed the team they hired to deal with the  influx of requests to be forgotten, there’s plenty of room for human error. Mayer-Schonberger again, writes, “We are only good at judging what is obvious to us.”

But at least current digital memory, as wide-sweeping as it may be, is not subjective, and an army picking and choosing which request to process and which to trash sounds risky.

Currently in U.S. there is no LAN before time. Nor is there a universal delete button. For now it’s best to mind your ps and qs and maybe stop hunting.

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