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The right to be forgotten… or, at least, edit

Molly Wood May 26, 2014
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The Venn Diagram of “people who use the internet” and “people who have googled themselves” is pretty much just a circle. And if you’ve participated in such an activity, you know the fear of turning up an item of your past that you’d rather not have available to the public at large. 

Mario Costeja Gonzalez of Spain certainly knows how that goes. His case against Google argued that he should have the right to remove links to an article detailing his debt to the government (which he has since settled). The European Union ruled in his favor, thus creating “The Right to be Forgotten.”

While there are still questions of exactly how this ruling will play out, Jonathan Zittrain, professor of law at Harvard and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, certainly understands the desire to control one’s online identity, or as he puts it: “that first magic page result on Google, in particular, does more to define you than pretty much anything else.”

Zittrain also points out that Google has experimented in the past with features that let users influence their internet presence. In 2007, for example, Google News allowed people who were quoted or mentioned in an article to add a comment contextualizing the content pertaining to their name and reputation.

It’s this kind of curation that gets the regulation of the internet into a gray zone, according to Zittrain.

With Google being merely a search engine — a machine, if you will — no one is to blame for a curated selection of materials that appear when someone is Googled. According to Zittrain, when you add a hand-picked element, however, and regulating becomes more problematic:

“The more curated that [Google results] is — whether by machine or by human — the more it deserves some kind of scrutiny and possibly an ability to contextualize for people who are mentioned or implicated by those results.”

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