forget me not

Do we have the right to be forgotten? and in the age of the internet is that even possible anymore? –

Everyone has parts of their lives that they wish could be forgotten; a thoughtless remark, or a stupid comment that continues to haunt you on those nights you just cannot get to sleep. For many of us, these social faux pas may fade into the ether, if you are lucky, they are never mentioned again, if you are a little less lucky, it is brought up continuously by your good friends for a cheap laugh. However, if details of your discretion somehow makes its way onto the internet, well that’s a different story and it might just end up as public knowledge and if the masses take a particular interest in this juicy piece of low-hanging fruit, well, then you may be in trouble. Not all sins are created equal, and some things in the internet are not even true, but if the court of public opinion does not turn in your favour, then none of that actually matters. Before you know it, this gossip has spread like wildfire and people have quickly made up their mind about you. In the real-world, time may heal all wounds, but on the internet time offers you little protection, information is perfectly preserved, and even something once seemingly lost, can easily be found with the right keywords typed into a search engine. So, is it possible to scrub the internet of your presence, to get a clean slate, a fresh start. Should the “right to be forgotten” be a basic human right?

Well, the levity of this issue depends on where you are; if you are based in Europe, they take this sort of thing much more seriously. European laws have long decided to take a far firmer stand on an individual’s right to privacy, with current laws which were built upon the old legislation of the Right to Oblivion, which argued that any convict who had served their sentence for a crime they committed and had paid their debt to society, could block any subsequent publication about their misdeeds . Revisions have been made to this legislation since its inception, but the mentality still survives. Now much more stringent laws have been put into place with the onset of General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in 2018,  a set of rules that shift the responsibility of reasonable data management onto those who are collecting and storing that information, so any personal data collected has to be responsibly stored and kept only for as long as that data is required, with stringent penalties for companies who are found not to be complying. So, from a corporate standpoint, these laws are pretty extensive and provide pretty robust protection to individuals, however the internet is the wild west, and if information is deemed to be “within the public interest” journalists are able to work around many facets of the GDPR legislation, and little can be done about the deluge of anonymous comments.  This is incredibly hard to police. If you are a savvy-enough internet user, and you find a specific source on the internet, and can prove that the information about you contained therein is not useful or of any public interest, you can insist that these websites are unindexed from any European branch of a search engine. However, this is not the case for their US counterparts, which look at this issue through the other end of the telescope. Here there is a greater concern for the protection of first amendment rights (the protection of free speech) and worries of censorship and of white-washing history. These are eminently worthy concerns and of course some heinous information should not be forgotten for the sake of public safety, but more often than not, the backlash of this mob justice does not fit the crime.

One such example is the story of Lindsey Stone, who was a well-liked charity worker who seemed perfectly suited for working with adults with additional learning needs, but Lindsey and her friends had a childish game. She liked to have her photo taken defying the rules of bossy signposts. A silly little pastime, but arguably something that any of us might have found amusing at some point, a little release valve for the mild anarchist that lives in us all. However, a bit of harmless fun was perhaps pushed a little too far when Stone and her friend went on a work trip to the US capital of Washington DC and to the neighbouring state of Virginia to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here she found a plethora of signs, then she saw a sign that read “silence and respect” and thought it would be funny to kneel in front of it while flipping the middle finger and pretending to shout, her friend quickly took the picture and then it was back to work. Perhaps a little callous on her part but it was just a bit of harmless fun. She shared the image on her social media account and forgot all about it. However, you know this is not where the story ends. Someone must have seen the photo and did not see the humour behind it, as it was shared first to a US veterans’ website and from there it spread, as these things generally do. Once the backlash began, Stone was forced to leave the job she was so gifted at, but the abuse did not end after she was fired, the abuse just escalated, and after her phone number and address were leaked online, it eventually evolved to vile death threats. After that, there doesn’t seem like there is anything else you can do, except to just hunker down and try and weather the storm.

But part of forgiveness is the ability to forget, and the Internet has perfect recall. A quick search and the wound are open again. But having all mention of you scoured from the Internet after such exposure is more than likely close to impossible. But there are alternative ways to play the system; services which are usually only available to those with the means to pay greatly. These companies work by exploiting the algorithms on which the search engines function, they create alternative pages about their client, and lots of them, bigging up any positive aspects of the person, and cross-referencing them to each other. Through this process the bad search results get pushed down the results page, hidden underneath a pile of new content, until eventually, the casual Internet stalker would most likely only stumble upon the deluge of the banal.  

One such company, Reputation.com, heard about Lindsey’s dilemma and either out of the extreme goodness of their heart, or after they got a whiff of an opportunity for some good PR and the chance to be written in as the heroes in Jon Ronson’s then upcoming book “So you have been  publicly shamed”, they decided to take the case, pro-bono, and they got to work creating this new facade for Lindsey.; although, this might be a slightly unfair characterisation on my part. Unlike some of the more unscrupulous competitors, Reputation.com claims they will never fabricate information for a client, instead they shine a light upon their positive attributes, making them far more apparent and exiling the bad PR to the lowest depths of the search results.

Reputation.com founder, Michael Fertik, does not believe that this power to cleanse the internet of content should not be limited to the rich and powerful, but alas, these types of services are not simple tasks, and they do not come cheap and for a long time this is most likely going to be just another tool for the powerful, and for the people who really need protecting, one that is just out of reach.

This whole thing reminds me of a story, a tale of two busses and a certain Prime Minister. Before his current tenure, Conservative MP Boris Johnson led the political charge for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. It was, to put it lightly, an absolute shit-show, with false claims and unkeepable promises. One such claim that Johnson lauded, was the “fact” that the UK sends £350 million to the EU every week, money which was taken out of the mouth of national institutions, such as the NHS, and that this travesty must be stopped. A fact that Johnson was so adamant on that he plastered it across his campaign bus. But after the Brexit referendum, and a marginal victory in favour of leaving, these promised funds never materialised; it had been a tactical lie, to put it very lightly, and that left an even worse taste of sour grapes in many people’s mouths. So, when Johnson declared himself in the leadership race to become leader of the conservative party, his behaviour during his Brexit campaign started to be brought up again. At some point during the interview circuit, a journalist gave Johnson a somewhat softball of a question, about what he likes to do to relax, and Boris went into painstaking details of how he spends his time…. painting wine crates to make them look like London busses…… Johnson has famously gotten away with downright unsavoury behaviour by acting as a bit of a lovable buffoon, so such a response was unexpected, but not all that surprising. It could be true, and following this interview, it was all over the news websites for the next few weeks. So now if you search “Boris Johnson” and “Bus” the search results are now somewhat diluted, a mix of Johnson’s underhand tactics and a weird man’s strange little hobby.

So if you ever find yourself publicly shamed on the internet… you may have some idea of what you can do, and you don’t need to worry about Lindsey, she managed to find a job that she equally thrives in, but she may think again before posting any more funny pictures online. But perhaps we could all do with being a little kinder to the strangers on the other side of the screen.

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