We've all written or posted things on the internet that we've later regretted, whether it's a poorly thought-out comment on the front-page post of a tech website or a potentially scandalous photo from a drunken night out. But law professor Jeffrey Rosen writes that the obsessive editing of one's self-image on the internet rides a fine line between privacy and censorship. His case in point: Argentinian pop star Virginia Da Cunha, who after finding that pictures of herself from a racy photoshoot had leaked online sued Google and Yahoo, demanding they take down the photos from wherever they had spread. An Argentinian judge ruled in Da Cunha's favor, citing a "right to be forgotten" that forced the search providers to delink content found by searching her name. Yahoo, saying they lacked the ability to remove the photos individually, even went as far as to block all sites referring to Da Cunha's name from their Argentinian search site.
The decision was overturned by an appeal in 2010, but as Rosen points out, searching for Da Cunha's name on Yahoo Argentina still yields no results, and a legal notice — effectively erasing the past of a public figure.
The implications go beyond the whims of a distraught pop star, however. Earlier this year, the right to be forgotten was proposed as part of a new data protection law from the European Commission. If it goes through, it would mean that search engines and social media sites could be held liable for removing content at the request of individuals — and that doesn't just mean celebrities. There would also be nothing stopping a corrupt politician or immoral CEO from escaping their unsavory past, for example. "This would transform Facebook and Google from neutral platforms into global censors and would clash directly with the principle ... that people can’t be restricted from publishing embarrassing but truthful information," Rosen writes. "As a result, the right to be forgotten may precipitate the Internet Age’s most dramatic conflict between European conceptions of privacy and American conceptions of free speech."
Note: This post has been updated to reflect that the court overturned the ruling in 2010.