They say that everyone deserves a second chance – but with the Internet creating a permanent record of so many of our actions, it’s quite possible that mistakes from the past could come back to haunt us for years to come. Recent high-profile examples have included Kevin Hart stepping down from hosting the Oscars over homophobic tweets from years gone by, or Representative Katie Hill being forced to resign after her ex-husband leaked compromising revenge porn photos to conservative news sites. Several countries around the world have varying degrees of success or failure in implementing the “right to be forgotten” – that is, the legal right for people to ask for information about themselves to be removed from search engines.
The right to be forgotten is controversial. On one hand, victims of revenge porn and other slanders, like Katie Hill, have very little recourse to repair the ongoing damage to their careers and reputations. Others feel that people with a criminal record, especially for nonviolent and petty crimes, shouldn’t have to answer for their past mistakes forevermore.
Others argue that allowing people to remove information about their past infringes upon freedom of expression and could lead to censorship and the ability for history to be inaccurately rewritten.
In the United States, we lean towards the right of the public to access information. However, in countries around the world, the right to be forgotten is gaining a foothold. For example, the European Data Protection Directive protects the right to be forgotten by requiring search engines to provide a process whereby a person can ask for links about them to be removed.
In fact, Google has an entire Advisory Council dedicated to making such decisions by weighing the harm done to the individual against the rights of the public to know. Some of the decisions have been controversial, such as a case where a doctor had removed links to articles about malpractice in his past. Nonetheless, many countries feel that the right to be forgotten should be protected, and in recent years France has put pressure on Google to remove contentious links not only from Google Europe but from all of its search engines internationally.
In the United States, there’s not much legal precedent for the “right to be forgotten.” So what should you do if you really want to erase incriminating links about yourself?
First of all, if you are a victim of revenge porn – don’t worry you’re not alone. Organizations like Cyber Civil Rights, Without My Consent, and BADASS Army can help guide you through the steps to get the content removed, deal with the emotional damage, and potentially take legal action, as posting revenge porn is against the law in many states.
And what if you want to vanish from the web just because? Lifehacker has a pretty comprehensive guide on how to “wipe your existence from the Internet.” This includes making private or completely deleting your social media accounts, emailing websites and asking them to take your name down, and opting out of people’s search sites. They even recommend a paid service called Delete Me which will, for a price, troll the Internet on an ongoing basis for content about you.
For now, there’s not much legal protection in the U.S. for the right to be forgotten and erasing something once it’s been posted may or may not work. We can’t necessarily control what reporters, public records, and exes say about us online – but we at least start by being careful with our own content and thinking twice before posting.