In Google searches of names, a right to be forgiven

Europe's highest court rules that individuals can demand search engines like Google remove links to personal data. The ruling only begins to address the Internet's problem of incomplete information on a person's past mistakes.

Mario Costeja Gonzalez speaks on his phone outside a court in Barakaldo, Spain, last year. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in his favor May 13 that he can legally demand removal of links to name by Internet search engines such as Google.

The highest court in the European Union issued a ruling Tuesday that is a legal victory of sorts for public forgiveness. It ordered that individuals can demand that Internet search engines like Google remove any links to online information about their past – even if that information is true and even if it has already been posted on a government or newspaper website.

The case was brought by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, who says his business reputation was being damaged because a Google search of his name brought up a 15-year-old reference to a published legal case pertaining to his personal debt. He long ago accepted his punishment and paid off the debt. But without that corrective fact on the link, potential clients might wonder if he could be trusted.

The EU court ruling will now allow more than 500 million people in 28 EU countries to challenge such Internet giants as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to have links with their names deleted. These companies already take down millions of unlawful postings of copyrighted materials each day. Now, at least in the EU, they face untold numbers of requests to block links to personal data.

The burden on Internet freedom could be huge. But the ruling at least highlights the need for each society, whether in Europe or elsewhere, to confront the challenge of incomplete or false information following someone across the digital universe. It begins to address a fundamental problem for Internet searches: Should links to a person’s past mistakes be so easily accessible if that person has also accepted punishment, made legal restitution, and morally atoned?

The court did not rule against the Spanish government or the newspaper, La Vanguardia, that posted information about Mr. Cosetja’s debt woes. It said they were acting in “public service.” Google, on the other hand, by processing such links within Europe in order to draw advertising money, had violated a right to privacy.

In granting this specific right on Internet searches, the ruling implies a presumption of innocence for individuals. Yet it also places a burden on individuals requesting a removal of links to show that their personal data are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purpose for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.” In other words, individuals must show a degree of reform, repentance, or other change that would serve to balance any damaging effect on their reputation from an online search.

Managing one’s online identity has become a necessity for many people, especially in cases of inaccurate information. Often this is called “impression management,” such as adding favorable references about one’s self to overwhelm the negative ones. But for those who truly regret past errors, the current Internet can sometimes be unforgiving. 

In smaller circles than the Web, such as in local government, a workplace, or a church, someone can be more easily forgiven because all the facts can be more easily discovered. After Rwanda’s genocide two decades ago, for example, most cases of murder were handled in villages, not at a national or international level. A repair of relationships and reputations was achieved through fair councils of local justice. Relevant facts were easily made known. Contrition was more easily discerned, making forgiveness more forthcoming.

The Internet has yet to develop such a healing process, one that allows forgiveness in cases when punishment has served its purpose of righting a wrong. Forgiving and forgetting are intrinsically linked. Some parts of the Internet never forgot, or forget incompletely. It is a lesson still to be learned in the Digital Age.

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