The Internet is Forever. Should it Be?

The 'permanent record' of yesteryear is now real. Should there be limitations?

Yesterday evening, I got an email from the father of a person who I mentioned in a long-forgotten-by-me blog post way back in October 2003. His then-20-year-old son, a college student in North Carolina, was arrested for carrying box cutters onto a Southwest Airlines flight. So far as I can tell, I never posted a follow-up story and, in any case, haven’t thought about the story in well over a decade.

But the Internet never forgets. While my blog post doesn’t show up on the first page of Google when searching for the man’s name, the first four results and six of the eight total results on the first page refer to that October 2003 incident. Thus the reason for the father’s message:

Mr. Joyner,

In an Outside the Beltway article from 10/20/03 you mention my son, [name redacted]. You also include a link to a CNN article (at the top of the page, CNN reports:). Unfortunately, your link has had the effect of helping to elevate this CNN article on Google searches for my son’s name.

Despite the fact that this incident with the TSA happened 15 years ago and my son has since earned a PhD from [rather prestigious university] in Engineering and Public Policy, he is still plagued by news stories relating to this incident that appear in Google searches. He was recently unemployed for a year despite good qualifications and many applications. We think that this is mostly because of the search results for his name.

If possible would you please remove the link to the CNN article from this Outside the Beltway article?

Thanks very much.

[father’s name]

[father’s hometown]

My initial instinct was to simply ignore the email. As a general principle, I don’t edit old pages other than to fix broken links, correct spelling errors, point to updates, and the like. Furthermore, the hyperlinked text was simply “CNN,” so I don’t think my linking to it has any effect whatsoever in conferring “juice” to the page. Relatedly, CNN is among the most trusted sources in Google’s algorithm, so it’s naturally going to be favored in searches for the son’s name regardless of whether OTB points to it. Further, the Washington Post, NBC News, and the Wall Street Journal are all among the top four searches; even if CNN’s somehow got diminished by my delinking it, it wouldn’t matter.

Upon further reflection, I’ve repointed the hyperlink to CNN’s homepage. While I still don’t think it’ll serve his father’s desired purpose, I support it.

It turns out that the son, then a dual major in political science and physics, was engaging in social protest. He had no intention of harming anyone with the box cutters he smuggled about that plane but rather pointing to the absurdity of the security theater to which we’d been subjected to in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks which, of course, were perpetrated using box cutters. If a 20-year-old college student could thwart the system, then surely a terrorist could. Alas, the authorities don’t have much of a sense of humor.

I can’t figure out from Google precisely what happened down the road. Presumably, since he finished college and obtained a prestigious doctoral degree, he wasn’t ultimately convicted of, much less served jail time for, the felony charges he was initially facing.

Nor can I say for certain whether his father is right about the fact that the 2003 incident is what is preventing his son from capitalizing on his credentials. I don’t know his particular field enough to comment but, certainly, the market for newly-minted PhDs in many fields has been horrendous for more than a quarter-century.

But this example points to a much larger problem: Lots of 20-year-old kids do lots of things their 34-year-old selves would find embarrassing. While I was never arrested, I’m sure there are things I did at 20 that I wouldn’t want to come up in Google searches for my name. (It helps that I have a relatively common name; the person who inspired this post doesn’t.)

The European Union has, famously, legislated a Right to Be Forgotten. Search engines are required to consider requests to delete links to pages containing prejudicial information about people concerning conduct in which they are no longer engaging. It’s been extremely controversial and confusing. The search engines find it incredibly burdensome and news outlets and other sources being de-linked not unreasonably complain about the rewriting of history and potential for outright fraud.

There’s not much chance of a similar right emerging in the United States, thanks to the First Amendment. Nor, in the whole, do I support us doing so. At the same time, I empathize with those who have made a mistake—or, in this case, engaged in courageous, if perhaps ill-advised, acts of civil disobedience—being unable to escape their youthful indiscretions.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. James Pearce says:

    At the same time, I empathize with those who have made a mistake—or, in this case, engaged in courageous, if perhaps ill-advised, acts of civil disobedience—being unable to escape their youthful indiscretions.

    If we’re not going to be forgetful, then we will need to be more forgiving.




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  2. drj says:

    The European Union has, famously, legislated a Right to Be Forgotten. […]

    There’s not much chance of a similar right emerging in the United States, thanks to the First Amendment. Nor, in the whole, do I support us doing so.

    But why not? The situation you are describing is exactly what the EU’s Right to Be Forgotten is about: a non-public persona who has done something wrong/stupid that, after so many years, is no longer newsworthy.

    The search engines find it incredibly burdensome

    So?

    news outlets and other sources being de-linked not unreasonably complain about the rewriting of history and potential for outright fraud.

    The Right to Be Forgotten is about making life easier for some random Joe who at one point did something stupid, not for covering up the misdeeds of the high and mighty, or even serial offenders.




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  3. KM says:

    The right to be forgotten only exists as a concept because people rely on the failure of memory to be able to “move on”. People want to be young and stupid and not pay for it when they are old and yes, protests even in the name of justice count because arrests happen. If photographic memories were more common in the populace, this wouldn’t be up for debate. Technology doesn’t forget – the written word, the camera and now the internet. Back in the day, keeping a written record of a crime or scandal would have been “keeping it around forever” and can you imagine how we would view history if every “indiscretion” got whitewashed by time? Damn, European history would fit on a single page!!

    It doesn’t change the fact that something factually happened; what they are really asking for is that all consequences have a hard deadline. For some things, that’s perfectly understandable but others, not so much. Frankly, you do not now nor never had the right to not be embarrassed. You do not now nor never had the right to be young and dumb and certainly not without consequences. You do not have the right to censorship or control to spare yourself from your own deeds.

    What you do have is the same right you’ve always had: inevitable biological impairment at the hands of time. People will forget you what you’ve done and only google you if you give them a reason to. Consider not giving them that reason, coming up with a prepared speech to justify it or just legally changing your name if it turns out you were *really* young and dumb.




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  4. KM says:

    @drj:

    The Right to Be Forgotten is about making life easier for some random Joe who at one point did something stupid

    And there’s the rub. What makes people think they have the right to an easier life?




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  5. drj says:

    @KM:

    What makes people think they have the right to an easier life?

    Because we’re civilized and we can make it happen at a reasonable cost.

    Which, by the way, is the exact same reason why we have social security and subsidized healthcare.




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  6. As I’ve written before, see here and here, the so-called “right to be forgotten” created out of whole cloth by the E.U.’s highest court is an utter absurdity.

    Thankfully, as James notes, the possibility of something such as that existing here thanks to the First Amendment.




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  7. KM says:

    @drj:

    Because we’re civilized and we can make it happen at a reasonable cost.

    Let me rephrase that: what makes people think they have the right to an easier life by having people erase their f^ckups and pretend they never happened by court order? What right do you have to make someone forget who doesn’t want to? What if the photo you demand gone is something I treasure and want to keep posted for a reason – does your right to be forgotten trump my right to remember?

    Demanding the internet “forget” things is not a reasonable cost in the long run. We don’t demand books be burned to erase data – yearbooks, personal diaries, journals, newspapers, etc are not rounded up and removed from existence to let people escape stupid mistakes. People act like it’s a matter of deleting or blocking one or two things and poof, internet has amnesia! It takes time, effort and money to do so – why should that be free of charge? You have to pay to expunge your legal record so it’s reasonable to expect that same kind of service online to cost, yes? Well, who’s employing the people to do that and who’s going to be held accountable if it’s not done right? Why is the cost being passed to the search engines when it’s not their fault the information was posted in the first place?

    Civilized people have *always* recorded the indiscretions of others. History is full of “important” people who are only noteworthy because of the scandal we happen to know. we know who Francesca da Polenta is because of Dante – betcha she’d have liked a right right to be forgotten! Civilization exists because we were able to keep records (salacious or otherwise), thus passing along knowledge but suddenly the vehicle of knowledge passage is a bad thing when it’s name happens to be internet.




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  8. James Joyner says:

    @James Pearce: Yes. Ultimately, I think everyone’s indiscretions being part of the permanent record might cause us to be less hypocritical. But that’s a long and painful road.

    @drj: Being forced to maintain a huge staff to go through the requests and tweak the algorithms for what is otherwise an automatic process is a ridiculous burden to place on companies that provide what is, in the end, a public good.

    @drj: Yes, but Social Security and Medicare are paid for by the society, not an unfunded mandate on private business.

    @KM: But the Internet is sufficiently different in scope as to be different in kind. If a 35-year-old with a PhD from an elite university sends me a CV, I’m not going to go through the trouble of going through various public databases to see if he committed some minor crimes as a college student. But I routinely Google any job candidate whose CV looks promising. I couldn’t conceive of inviting them for an interview without doing that degree of due diligence.




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  9. Andy says:

    But I routinely Google any job candidate whose CV looks promising. I couldn’t conceive of inviting them for an interview without doing that degree of due diligence.

    And this is one big reason why I remain pseudonymous online. It used to be that the “first impression” was actually meeting someone, shaking their hand, and talking to them. Today, the first impression is whatever Google’s algorithm is able to collect on you. Out primate brains are unable to view that parsed and highly selective bit of information objectively.




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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Andy: Yup. Now, I’m not looking to see if they’ve said something dumb on a Tweet or a blog comment section. But one guy who would otherwise have been a top candidate for a job became a Hell No once we figured out that he was running a white supremacist website in his spare time. The 2003 controversy that’s the subject of the OP wouldn’t bother me were he in my line of work; but I could see why some would shy away.




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  11. Franklin says:

    The only takeaway I can find here for the average person is to make sure you give your children common names (you may have to avoid bequeathing your last name). I believe there’s a public record made when people request to change their names, so it’s not good enough just to do that after you’ve made a public mistake.




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  12. drj says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    As I’ve written before, see here and here, the so-called “right to be forgotten” created out of whole cloth by the E.U.’s highest court is an utter absurdity.

    Based on what you wrote, I’m pretty positive that you didn’t actually read the CJEU’s ruling.

    For instance, in both instances you completely (and conveniently) disregarded this rather crucial part of the ruling (pardon the legalese):

    However, that would not be the case if it appeared, for particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, that the interference with his fundamental rights is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of inclusion in the list of results, access to the information in question.

    In other words: product or service reviews are not subject to the Right to Be Forgotten. If you are a CEO of a major financial institution, professional missteps are not subject to the Right to Be Forgotten. If you are a politican, or even a celebrity, you are basically fair game. Serious crimes same thing.

    Quite a few other things you wrote equally show an almost complete lack of understanding of what the CJEU actually said.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to object against the Court’s ruling, but mischaracterizing its reasoning isn’t terribly helpful.

    @KM:

    What if the photo you demand gone is something I treasure and want to keep posted for a reason – does your right to be forgotten trump my right to remember?

    The Right to Be Forgotten is about processing personal data by search engines, not about taking down the original material. So you can remember all you want, but the question is: should people who don’t remember always be informed of someone’s past missteps or embarassements?

    We don’t demand books be burned to erase data – yearbooks, personal diaries, journals, newspapers, etc are not rounded up and removed from existence to let people escape stupid mistakes.

    Again, this is not what’s happening. You are vigorously fighting a straw man. Which is OK, if you really want to, but also rather pointless.




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  13. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    Being forced to maintain a huge staff to go through the requests and tweak the algorithms for what is otherwise an automatic process is a ridiculous burden to place on companies that provide what is, in the end, a public good.

    These companies don’t provide a public good. They’re in it for the money. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

    And guess what? These companies are still profitable. They haven’t left the EU. They still want to do business there.

    Like most regulations, it just cuts a bit into their profit margins. But in return, EU citizens get a bit more privacy. I don’t see the problem: lower corporate profits in exchange for less social harm is not an alien concept.

    If these companies don’t like it, instead of complaining, they can always leave.

    ETA: there is another comment awaiting moderation (must have been the link). Maybe someone can release it?




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  14. Andy says:

    @Franklin:

    Even better, give your children the names of famous people. Unfortunately, it’s too late for me, but if I could go back I’d name my daughter “Beyonce Oprah Clinton” and my two sons would be “Tom Beiber Cruise” and “Dwayne Johnson Clooney.”




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  15. CSK says:

    @Franklin:

    The very last thing I’d do is give my kid a common name. I have one. People with similar names have claimed credit for books and articles I’ve written, been given credit for books and articles I’ve written, and I’ve also been “identified” as an actress and a Playboy bunny, as well as several other much, much less savory things.

    I wish I’d been born Herzeloyd von Eschenbach.




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  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    In 1995, OJ Simpson was tried for murder an acquitted. It’s been 20 years since then, and he currently holds no position of any sort that would create a public need to know about this. By any reasonable definition of “right to be forgotten”, this is the sort of case that would qualify.

    Should mentioning the murder or trial be against the law? Should FX be guilty of a crime for the TV show The People v. O. J. Simpson? Should it be against the law to reveal who won the 2016 emmy or 2017 golden globe for best miniseries?




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  17. Tyrell says:

    Some years back I went on a religious retreat. Three days with no clocks, cell phones, phones, tv’s, radios, or computers. A totally different feeling once we got used to it.
    In a few months I am going to try living without Google.




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  18. Kari Q says:

    I am frequently thankful that I came of age before the internet. No one wants their youthful stupidity preserved forever. Millennials will never know what that is like. On the other hand, since everything they did when young was captured some place, they will have figured out how to deal with it. In 20 years, there will be a social rule covering these things and situations like the individual in question will be treated as irrelevant to his career and life. Getting there will be an interesting process.




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  19. @drj:

    It has been nearly four years since I wrote those posts but, yes, I did read the ruling at the time and I still found it to be utterly absurd. Perhaps it works for Europe, but I’m glad we’ll never see anything like it here in the United States.




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  20. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Ultimately, I think everyone’s indiscretions being part of the permanent record might cause us to be less hypocritical. But that’s a long and painful road.

    So? So was desegregation. So was equality for women. “It’s hard” is not an argument that deserves any deference at all.

    We’re talking about a kid who (bless him) committed an act of Civil Disobedience to make a point. Part of the point of Civil Disobedience is that you are willing to suffer the consequences, in order to try to shift public opinion in the long run. It’s not Civil Disobedience if you expect to get off with no penalty.

    I think the person in question should own his actions, be willing to explain them to those who ask, and live with the fact that some idiots either won’t look beyond the surface or won’t sympathize with his motives. Derek Parfit notwithstanding, you can’t completely disavow the person you were as being unrelated to who you are now.




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  21. Kit says:

    As Shakespeare has it: He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

    I like the contributors and commenters here, but the core demographic looks to be about 45-65, an age old enough to need not worry about the long memory of the internet. After having read the somewhat sour and self-satisfied reflections on display, reflections distinctly lacking in empathy, I’m coming to the conclusion that problems relating to society and the internet will be solved, at least as far as this generation is concerned, actuarially.




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  22. Kit says:

    Let me also add that I’m inclined to agree with Doug’s comment about this Right to be Forgotten being created out of whole cloth. But is the riposte to this really the First Amendment? Really? I’m inclined to read that right in the light of the Founding Fathers preoccupation with preventing tyranny. Not with ensuring that each precious snowflake express himself. And certainly not to protect the algorithms of Big Business. The idea, as I understand it, is to prevent government from keeping a lid on the truth, particularly as that truth has a bearing on the well being of the republic.




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  23. @Kit:

    The point is that the First Amendment would preclude the legislature from passing a law that contained anything resembling the “right to be forgotten” that the European Court invented and it would prevent an American court from somehow inventing such a right.




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  24. @Kit:

    I’m not unsympathetic to the idea that people ought not to be held responsible for dumb things they may have posted online in the past, but the solution to that isn’t legislation. Instead, we need to come to some kind of agreement as a society about what the “statute of limitations,” for lack of a better term, is on dumb stuff you posted online as a teenager.

    That being said, I am glad that the Internet didn’t exist when I was in High School.




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  25. Kit says:

    @Doug Mataconis: While I have no doubt that you are correct, I cannot help but suspect that this right of ours is one that has morphed quite far from its original intention. In most ways, I think it suits us here and now, but when it precludes the possibility of even discussing the idea of a right to be forgotten, then it seems a bit perverse.




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  26. Kit says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Sure, it’s better when we can agree as a society. But those days seem so very far away… And still, is difficult to read something then pretend that it doesn’t matter because it’s beyond the statute of limitations that society has set. These issues will be worked out, but probably by those generations growing up under their shadow. Not ours.




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  27. Sara says:

    @Tyrell: But its not possible when the entire phone comes with google based OS.




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  28. @Kit:

    I would prefer the world we have now under the First Amendment to one where it was possible for the government, via either legislation or a Court ruling, to enforce such a thing as a “right to be forgotten.”




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