Why Americans, like Europeans, should be able to scrub their online search results

What will be your Google legacy?
What will be your Google legacy?
Image: Reuters/Mal Langsdon
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Based on the uproar from American internet and legal experts, I had assumed a privacy ruling by the European Union Court of Justice in May was an assault on free speech and our right to information. I also assumed it would mostly be sex offenders or hucksters who would ask to have a search term delinked from something they don’t like on the web.

Several weeks later, I’m starting to understand that many people simply want the right to control their own online narrative.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the author of “Delete: the virtue of forgetting in the digital age,” the book that inspired Europeans to rethink their online privacy policies. He told me that we put the past behind us for a good reason: “Forgetting is built into us, we forget most of the stuff we experience everyday,” he says. “That enables human beings to evolve, to learn, to move forward. If we undo that capacity to forget because our digital tools remember then we are undoing a very important element of what makes us human.”

Without forgetting, there can’t be much forgiving, Mayer-Schönberger points out. And it’s hard to look forward, not back.

And many, many people want slivers, or even whole swaths, of their past to be forgotten.

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Germans want to be alone

One IT lawyer, Christian Solmecke in Cologne, told me he has been retained by more than 100 Germans who have filled out Google’s web form and are waiting to hear whether the search engine will remove their links. He says Europeans, and Germans in particular, have a different attitude toward privacy, not just online but in life.

As an example, take the case of one of Solmecke’s clients, a 24-year-old man looking for work. Every time a prospective employer googles the man’s name, an article about a school reading contest he won 10 years ago pops up at the top. Not so bad on the surface except the article mentions that he attended a special needs school. “What’s the big deal?” I asked Solmecke in the latest episode of my podcast, New Tech City. The newspaper article isn’t wrong or inaccurate. But, the content makes no difference, he says, “In Europe you can decide what people can know about you.”

It all reminds me of Greta Garbo’s famous line, “I want to be alone.”

The sentiment doesn’t just apply to wrongdoers.

So do some Americans

I recently met a 50-something music professor named Robert Barefield and he told me the sad story of what happened to him in January. Barefield and his partner were vacationing in Cambodia and they went on a tour of Angkor Wat. At the top of one of the temples, Barefield’s partner suddenly collapsed and died.

No medical services or police turned up for over an hour, he says. Fellow tourists helped Barefield carry his partner’s body down the steep steps and, after a few difficult days dealing with local authorities, identifying the body at the morgue, filling out paperwork, a traumatized Barefield returned home to bury his beloved.

Two months later, at home in Connecticut, Barefield lay in bed, laptop open after watching the Academy Awards. He wanted to re-read a particularly touching memorial message a friend had posted, so Barefield googled his partner’s name. The thumbnail image that popped up gave Barefield another shock.

“There was a picture of my partner. I know it very well because it was the next day in the hospital morgue,” he told me.

A local Cambodian news website had published the photo; there is a somewhat strange and mystical fascination with people who die on the sacred grounds of Angkor Wat and, like all the world’s digital information, the photo of the corpse had been quickly indexed by Google’s search engines.

Barefield was horrified: “I don’t want people looking at it ever, it’s not him, it’s not right. It’s a desecration,” he said. After emailing, phoning, and even faxing Google, asking for the picture to be unlinked from his partner’s name, Barefield was told by the company that they were very sorry but nothing could be done. He doesn’t expect the photo to be removed from the internet, he just doesn’t want that photo to turn up immediately when his partner’s name is googled. It’s not the image that should dominate his partner’s eternal online life.

I have a confession to make. I googled Robert Barefield’s partner’s name, partly as a fact-checking exercise but also because I wanted to know just how easy it truly was to find the offending photo. With one search, I very quickly found it. Frankly, I didn’t think the photo was that horrifying. It was peaceful. Quiet.

But it doesn’t matter what I think. If Barefield doesn’t want me to see that photo, then that should be his choice … not my right. He says he will continue to press Google to delink the photo from his partner’s name.

And I’ll continue to consider the evolving right to be forgotten online as far more nuanced than outraged news coverage implies.