Is editing our digital footprint a good idea?

EU court rules there is ‘right to be forgotten’

The recent ruling by the highest court in the European Union on the “right to be forgotten” has sent ripples around the world and has prompted many US citizens to ask: could that happen here?

The EU has always been more concerned with personal privacy than with freedom of the press or freedom of information. But in the United States, people hold onto their First Amendment rights just as tightly as they hold on to their right to vote, buy a gun, or own property. However, as each individual’s digital footprint grows, there could be some support for editing a Google search history.

The EU court ruling states that companies, such as Google, need to take a balanced approach when implementing this new law. The court, however, provides no guidelines as to what is appropriate. The ruling mandates that search engines develop a mechanism for users to flag links and articles for removal from the search index. The company is then responsible for deciding if the flagged information falls into the right criteria for removal. This approach could lead to confusion and frustration on behalf of the companies and users, among other fuzziness.

As with any sweeping legislation, there are unintended consequences to the “right to be forgotten.” One such consequence of the ruling is the performance impact on the search engines themselves. Highly complex algorithms that are used to find keywords and display results in milliseconds could be slowed down by a growing number of flagged links. Eventually, this process could have an impact on search engine performance, something many businesses and web browsers would not want to see happen.

Additionally, the legislation could lead to users distrusting the results of their search. Imagine searching the title of an article you once read and wanted to revisit, yet it’s not there because someone else found it violated their privacy. You know it’s somewhere on the Internet, yet you can’t get to it. That could happen on a number of occasions, yet you might not know what you’re missing every time. Filtering search results could undo all the information sharing and progress that the Internet age has brought us.

Despite the law’s murkiness, some supporters in the United States are already pushing for a similar ruling on this side of the Atlantic. People are becoming more and more aware of their digital footprint, particularly with widespread use of the ubiquitous cloud technologies that are part of our everyday lives. At Collaborative Consulting, where I am employed, we work with companies across a number of sectors on cloud architecture, which organizes all sorts of data into a simple system available online. It’s not just businesses; individuals are also utilizing the cloud more and more, and perhaps aren’t even aware of how much of their information is in the cloud and readily available through a simple Google search.

Ever wonder how the ad for that outdoor gas grill you were admiring online shows up on your Facebook feed? That’s the cloud at work.

Meet the Author
Our digital footprint is everywhere. That is partly why the EU ruled in favor of privacy over public information. Will the United States make that same leap? It’s unlikely, but best to be prepared as this issue gains momentum: It could affect how we interact online.

Ed Featherston is enterprise architect at Collaborative Consulting of Burlington.