Thursday, July 10, 2014

Forget me not?

I’m a romantic. One year for Valentines I had 200 flowers delivered to my sweetie. Even though there’s a flower dedicated to making sure your love remembers you – I went with the traditional red rose. (In a German legend, God named all the plants when a tiny unnamed one cried out, "Forget-me-not, O Lord!" God replied, "That shall be your name.") Being remembered is more than just for the lovelorn on a February day. We all want to make an impact, have an imprint on the world. It’s not limited to lame duck politicians looking to mark their legacy – it’s part of how individuals make sense of “existence.” That is now easier in Europe where you can now pick and choose what the world knows about you.

The BBC reports: “The internet (almost) never forgets. Google - and other search engines - are extremely efficient at crawling the web to find and store data. Even if websites are taken offline, a cache is kept - meaning they can still be accessed.”

A Spaniard, Mario Gonzalez hit financial difficulties in 1998 and a property he owned was put up for auction to pay his debts. A decade later web searches kept pulling up the now dated information of his financial difficulties – so he sued Google. The European Court agreed – and despite appeals and counter suits - ordered the company to find a mechanism to allow people to make requests to cull certain information. The “right to be forgotten” law was passed and implemented.

The BBC reports on some of the 250,000 requests that have flooded into Google in the first weeks of the new law: “Google has received fresh takedown requests after a European court ruled that an individual could force it to remove 'irrelevant and outdated' search results, the BBC has learned. An ex-politician seeking re-election has asked to have links to an article about his behaviour in office removed. A man convicted of possessing child abuse images has requested links to pages about his conviction to be wiped. And a doctor wants negative reviews from patients removed from the results.”

The Internet – this generation’s most important transformation and innovation – is just a bunch of data. Search engines – whether it is Google, Bing, Ask, or Yahoo – mine data and sort it in a way that is useful. The industry is worth multiples of billions of dollars and I would gather than few of us today could imagine day to day living without immediate access to information.

The European Court has now changed the role of search engines – and instead of being a dispassionate technological algorithm, they now must interpret data. It's rife with problems. While I’d love for some of my past indiscretions to not appear on a search, the reality is that they did occur. Why censor the data? Couldn’t weighting the results based on the age of the material have been a solution? And easier to program? Something 12 years old maybe shouldn’t top the list – but it shouldn’t just go away because it's old and 'irrelevant.' The examples of requests that have already come in are chilling enough – just think of what Americans would do with this option.

The U.S. is a celebrity driven - both in politics and in culture. Richard Nixon would certainly have appreciated the ability to have things “forgotten” (beyond 18 minutes on an audio tape). Monica Lewinski wouldn’t have had to reappear and write a book to rehabilitate her image, she could have just disappeared from search results. Do we really need to create another way for public figures to more easily shape the truth?

A popular meme around elections is based on the Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote: you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. Let’s not forget that having facts, having the truth means the unpleasant stuff too. That romantic gesture of 200 flowers? It freaked out the recipient – so while I remember it as a grand loving gesture, he remembers it differently. The truth? We’re both right and it should not be up to one of us to choose what is remembered.

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