Google Knows Me, Therefore I Am
June 18, 2014 | By Neil Howe
This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.
The European Court of Justice recently ruled that Google must accept requests from individuals to delete objectionable search results linked with their names. People soon began inundating the search engine with an average of 10,000 requests a day. This ruling was seen as an expansive recognition of the right to privacy and as a blow to the Internet search industry, which has long argued that it shouldn’t be liable for information that it merely curates. It’s also sparked a far-reaching conversation about the challenges of living in a world where your digital reputation serves as a second self—and youthful indiscretions and mistaken identities can follow you for a lifetime.
Does a private citizen’s right to control his or her digital identity outweigh the public’s right to know—or, more accurately, Google’s right to highlight what we should look at first? Google says no, a stance that most U.S. legal scholars believe would be upheld should similar proposals ever make their way here. Yet given the site’s massive power and influence in our lives, regulation may arrive sooner than people think.
Under the EU ruling, Google must remove links to information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive.” In this case, judges sided with a Spanish man who argued that prominent search results concerning tax problems he had in 1998 were hurting his reputation. Removal requests, however, are not automatically granted: Information about public figures or data with historical or scientific value may be excepted. In addition, removals do not delete the original source of the information from the Internet; they just make it difficult to find. As such, what’s been termed “the right to be forgotten” is not exactly accurate. Google can’t make the Web forget. Rather, it’s the right to have any say over the billboard that defines who you are in the eyes of everybody else.
Google, which was quick to express disappointment with the ruling, warns that it will whitewash the Internet and end up empowering wrongdoers. Free-speech advocates—particularly those based in America—call it censorship and say that First Amendment considerations should outweigh privacy concerns.
Supporters, however, have labeled the ruling a step in the right direction. They argue that search engines have too much power to shape people’s online histories and are far from a neutral intermediary. Some even argue that the ruling doesn’t go far enough because, although it gives individuals redress, it gives Google wide discretion to determine the public’s best interest. This is a process that could easily invite fraud or abuse.
According to Weekly Standard senior editor Christopher Caldwell, Google should be regulated like a public utility: It profits from the now-essential data it collects while commanding an estimated 67 percent of the U.S. search market and 90 percent of Europe’s. Surely it’s reasonable, Caldwell writes, to expect that the company of its scope be subject to some form of regulation. It’s an argument similar to that put forth by net neutrality advocates (who typically are in Google’s camp). These voices may grow stronger as the company remains under heightened scrutiny following the ruling and renewed antitrust allegations.
Google defends its unfettered right to author our digital identities under the cherished American ideal of free speech. But Google’s liberty conflicts with another time-honored “Jacksonian” ideal going back at least two centuries: the right of self-made individuals to move on and remake themselves. Under Google’s omniscient eye, we can no longer leave our pasts behind. The result is a society left walking on eggshells.
Media stories about Internet privacy have long focused on people worrying about totally private information inadvertently becoming public. But the arrangement and presentation of public data by search engines may actually be a more universal, day-to-day concern for Americans today. This is especially true for Millennials and Homelanders, whose extensive Web histories will be fair game for anyone who knows their name. These younger generations will never know what it’s like to walk into a new school, college, town, or job and create a fresh reputation for themselves.
We can see this playing out in the growing number of individuals trying to reclaim some control over their Internet identities. Young people are becoming more mindful of “best presentation practices” on social networks—and flipping the privacy controls on more often. They are also using more anonymous or ephemeral services to communicate. Businesses like Reputation Defender promise to clean up search results for a fee. Meanwhile, legal scholars like Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain have spoken out in support of “reputation bankruptcy,” an idea that would allow people to purge certain categories of information (like credit scores or Facebook likes) every decade or so.
Over the next decade, this rising tide of reputational anxiety will compel Google (and other standard Internet utilities) to submit to rules and appeals procedures that reflect a public consensus on fairness. If necessary, the FCC or Congress will create rules or laws to make it happen.
Further into the future, it’s harder to speculate. Some say that in a world where everyone’s worst moment is always a click away, social norms will relax; the public will no longer consider a drunken teenage photo a scarlet letter. Others think that people will ultimately grow more wary about what ends up online, resulting in a blander Web where every statement is pre-vetted. The latter direction is probably closer to the truth. By the time the first Millennials are hitting midlife and Homelanders are coming of age, caution will be the watchword. Instead, it will be the youth generation after Homelanders (whom I’ve already predicted will foment a values revolution) who will likely demand an end to the Orwellian high-tech reign of public opinion. They will clamor for, and win, the right to self-define once again.