A future we haven't imagined, but might forget

A mobile device shows Wikipedia's front page

We've been covering the European top court ruling and subsequent battles over the "Right to be forgotten" for some months now. At this point, the motivations of the key players seem clear.

Google wants to organize all of the Internet's information without it saying "redacted" all over it.

A guy who had some debts but paid them -- and apparently 70 thousand other people -- felt like the top result when people search for his name infringes on his right to have that material wiped from the Internet record.

Government officials want to protect citizens and introduce some order to an environment that seems chaotic.

Each kind of party involved has gloomy predictions about the future if the right precautions aren't taken. And while I've envisioned all of those predictions as possible, there's one potential future I didn't imagine: What if only a small number of people request takedowns, but they're all the worst kind of people?

This is what dawned on me while I was reading the news about Wikipedia's first transparency report, which includes information about granted rtbf requestsAmong the five Wikipedia entries and 50 links affected: One on an Italian criminal with four life sentences, an Irish bank robber, a musician, a chess player, and an Italian gang (Italy gets two!).

Wikipedia has discouraged us from assuming the anonymous requesters are always the same people whose entries are being impacted. But I feel like it's safe to say these do not seem like hugely important entries. So who is requesting the search results for them be changed? 

I worry that the new European policy will be manipulated not by waves and waves of people who want that awkward photo taken down, like tech companies would have us believe. Nor by people who have legitimate arguments (and we should be cognizant of the importance of second chances).

Instead the policy might be used by a very select few. People who have too much time on their hands (OK maybe not the end of the world). But perhaps also organizations and people that benefit directly from keeping the truth hidden or at least blurred. Even on a small scale, that kind of selective editing can be annoying, and even dangerous.

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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