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Why your online identity can never really be erased

Taylor Armerding | Aug. 5, 2014
An EU court has ruled that its citizens have 'the right to be forgotten.' Privacy experts say it is possible to make certain information harder to find, but that it is not going to disappear.

Credit: Thinkstock

One seemingly unshakeable truth about the online world since it began is this: The Internet never forgets. Once you post anything online, it is recoverable forever -- the claims of former IRS official Lois Lerner about "lost" emails notwithstanding. Even promises of photos disappearing after a few seconds have been shown to be bogus.

But that doesn't mean people won't try. The latest effort comes from the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled in May that EU citizens have the "right to be forgotten," meaning that they can ask search engines like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing to remove links to their names that are, "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed."

Good luck with that. For starters, the ruling doesn't mean the information has been eliminated from the web entirely -- just that it will be harder to find, since it won't show up as a link on search engine.

But beyond that, critics contend that the ruling is not only unenforceable, but is already having unintended consequences. Kashmir Hill, writing in Forbes recently, called it a "logistical nightmare," in part because Google notifies media organizations when it removes one of their stories, "which leads the organization to re-earth the story and mention the incident that some European desperately wanted disappeared."

Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor, noted that it is also, "far too easy for others to quickly make copies and save elsewhere. Information is also automatically cached, and often copied, on some sites, including most of the search engines," she said.

Another logistical problem is that the EU court doesn't have worldwide jurisdiction. The ruling only applies to the EU version of Google. If you don't find what you're looking for there, just switch to the U.S. version, or one from another region of the world.

Yet another is that, so far, the operators of the search engines themselves are the ones determining whether the requests are legitimate. Both Google and Microsoft require extensive documentation in a four-part form that includes proof of identity, European residency, any pseudonyms, an email address and whether the person is a public figure or a local community leader.

It then requires a list of the pages the person wants blocked, along with the reasons why. The companies say they then make a decision by seeking to balance the right of privacy with public interest and free expression.

According to Hill, Google reported that over two months it had approved about half of 100,000 requests to have links erased. But the bottom line is that the company, not a disinterested court or perhaps a public-interest council, makes the decision.


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