It's time America adopted 'the right to be forgotten'

  • Some US newspapers launched “Fresh Start” initiatives where they will remove a story from their archives if it is causing you long-lasting harm. 
  • The European Union has offered citizens this ‘right to be forgotten’ for years by working with Google to scrub search results on a case by case basis. 
  • The US initiatives do not go far enough — without mass coordination, one publication’s removal of a negative story will not remove it from other web results. 
  • Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and the author of “YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars”, and the upcoming book “TikTok Boom: China, the US and the Superpower Race for Social Media.” 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There was a time not so long ago when youthful indiscretions could be forgiven and overlooked. To err is human goes the maxim, and many of us err in our younger days. 

It could be a small-scale theft from a local store, or a misguided scam designed to make money quickly. But in the pre-internet era, the punishment for such crimes would be a slap on the wrist from the local police department, an embarrassing appearance on the rap sheet printed in the local newspaper, and at most a small-town scandal that would likely blow over within a few weeks.

Crime columns have long been a mainstay of newspapers worldwide. They’re where you see the bizarre events that make a town tick: the small disputes and silly misdemeanors that keep police station cells busy, and theoretically keep cops away from donuts. 

But in the digital era, they’ve become something more significant than they were ever designed to be: they’re now permanent collections of people’s misdeeds, ready to pull up at the simple search of someone’s name. 

Newspapers — which have ballooned into news websites, accessible not just within the limits of its delivery and circulation route, but from anywhere on the planet — have grown uncomfortable with that.

A number of newsrooms have, in recent months, launched what many term “Fresh Start” initiatives. The Boston Globe is the most recent, launching in late January. 

The premise is simple: if you’ve previously been written about by the newspaper, and you’d rather the institutional memory of that awkward wedding argument written up as a colorful feature for readers to pick over in excruciating detail disappear, the organization will consider it. A panel of 10 journalists will hear petitions to have names or whole stories removed if they’re causing long-lasting embarrassment and having a deleterious effect on a subject’s ability to move on with their lives.

The question is why this hasn’t happened earlier — and why it doesn’t go further than a handful of newspapers.

The right to be forgotten

Since 2014, the European Union has given individuals the right to be forgotten. Subject to strict caveats, people who believe that the unsavory newspaper story that keeps resurfacing whenever someone searches for their name is having a harmful impact on their life can appeal to Google to have it removed from search results. The de-indexing of the news stories or social media posts doesn’t wipe it from the internet, but it does mean that all but the most determined are unlikely to find it.

More than a million people like Mario Costeja González, a Spanish property buyer whose reputation was blighted by a 1998 newspaper story saying he foreclosed on his home, a debt he later settled, have taken advantage of the right to be forgotten since.

Costeja González, ironically, sacrificed his reputation to try and save those of the million others who have asked for Google to remove links to search results in their name. Now everyone knows him as the guy who foreclosed on his home — though they hopefully also know now that he paid off the debt, and that he paved the way for others to clear their name.

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