I have always been told that a good introduction is nothing if not a good hook, so here goes: online editors may have even more responsibility and power than they realise.
RIGHT TO BE FORGOTTEN – HOW IT CAME TO BE
Let me explain. I am sure that, by now, most people will be familiar, at least to some degree, with the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) decision that was rendered on the 13th of May 2014. From this decision sprouted the right to be forgotten, a procedure that allows individuals to request the de-indexation of search results related to their name.
Now, there are many issues with that, starting with the fact that it is the search engines themselves that have been tasked with granting or rejecting these requests, which makes very little sense from a legal perspective but is clearly the better choice when looking at it from a practical standpoint. Given infinite time and resources, the requests would probably have been handled by an official pan European body, but because of the manpower it requires and the costs it would have incurred Google (and Bing, and Yahoo!) are now in charge. But this is not what this article is about. This article is about why a need to be forgotten that requires action from the ECJ has come to be a necessity in the first place.
THE WEB DOESN’T FORGET
Let us take it back to the source – the online search results. Picture the following scenario: imagine, if you will, that you are living at the end of the 60s, before the online media era and the Internet. You just got back from a wild music festival and a reporter wrote a story associating your name to a circle of drug users that got interrogated by the local police. This minor incident is published on paper and soon enough everyone will have forgotten about the case or the fact that you were associated with anything (the general public at least). Now, take that exact situation and transpose it to 2004. Congratulations, you made the national news. But wait, there’s more, all of the regional press and a vast amount of forums and websites are spreading the story as well. And if you haven’t done anything about it, 10 years later, in 2014, chances are that it is still the main story that populates the search results for your name.
This example is a classic case of what we deal with on a regular basis. We have seen people victim of an embarassing story that happened yers ago that still suffer from it on a personal level when meeting new people because there has been an article about it in their local online press. We have seen cases of people accused of but not convicted for an offense, yet they are still suffering from it and it is preventing them from getting a job or a loan. You name it. It is like search engines have taken away any second chance individuals may have been given. It is a permanent stain on their online record that is visible to everyone.
I am not arguing the fact that the press should inform, or even that the information should be made public in the first place, but there should be a debate as to how long a story should stay online: is it still relevant 10 years later? It is not secret that employers, customers, potential business associates, friends, foes, families look people up online. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Not anymore. Because for those unfortunate enough to have a light cast on their past misbehavings, however trivial, there is no coming back. Sometimes (and I do mean *sometimes*) they will be given the right to be forgotten by the search engines, yet the articles, although de-indexed, still remain on the websites.
THE THIN LINE BETWEEN INFORMATION AND PREJUDICE
The press have always been, to some extent, wielders of the hammer of justice, making the general public aware of what goes on in their society and sometimes that meant public shaming. The press is extremely important, the right to publish is a foundation of our modern society, but the digital age has brought new elements into the balance. In most cases personal and private affairs as well as stories of embarrassments that happened to happen in public should be confined to one’s very private circle, not available for the whole world to see.
And now here we are, back to my original statement: the fact that editors have a far greater power over people’s lives that they sometime realise. Anything written and published online on an influential newspaper’s website will live on, it will be a permanent mark on one’s online canvas, a mark that doesn’t necessarily fit the rest of the painting and may destroy lives or future projects. However the media in general and online editors in particular are not necessarily the bad guys here, far from it, they mostly just stick to their journalistic ethos. Unfortunately, as noble as this is, it can in some instances have unbecoming consequences on others. A possible solution could be that, after a set number of years, the article would either de-index itself or anonymise the individuals it cites. Some kind of “digital rehabilitation act” if you will, or a self-triggered right to be forgotten. After all, the principles set out in the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines suggest to refrain from publishing material likely to cause individuals grave offence and prejudice.
In any case, I will not claim to hold the keys to this debate, but I do mean for it to take place.