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Olson: Forget about 'right to be forgotten'

Published: Friday, July 25, 2014 11:24 p.m. CDT

At most any newspaper that runs them, the local police reports probably generate the most reader calls – and some of the most consistent reader interest.

At the Daily Chronicle, we get on average a phone call or visit a week from someone asking about the police reports.

No matter what the police might say, or what your lawyer might tell you, or what you might have heard from your roommate’s friend who got arrested one time a couple of years ago, the truth is no. I can’t do that for you, or for anyone.

We don’t withhold news about people’s arrests because it’s part of the public record that our readers entrust us to publish in its entirety. That’s as it should be – the public has a right to know what its local law enforcers are doing, who they’ve taken into custody, when they can be released, and so on.

The classic request is the “I don’t want my mom to see my name in the police blotter.”

The new one that’s emerged in recent years is, “can’t you make these police reports from four years ago disappear?”

Here’s a typical, fictionalized scenario:

Zaphod Zizzo’s parents were fans of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Zaph was 20 when he was arrested for underage drinking by the DeKalb police in 2010, and his name appeared in the Daily Chronicle’s police reports in print and online.

Today he’s Mr. Zizzo, a math teacher at a middle school, working hard to pay off his student loans. Unfortunately, when his students type his unique name into Google, the police reports published in the Daily Chronicle four years ago turn up on the first page of results. 

So Zaphod calls and asks us to delete the story, or at least remove his name because this one youthful mistake is causing him embarrassment years later.

It’s usually people with uncommon names and little Internet presence who run into this problem. There’s not much else for Google to dredge up besides an old news story with their name in it. Or sometimes, they’ve been clicking on this story obsessively enough to elevate it from the second page of results to the first.

(Someone with a more common name, like mine, has a relative measure of anonymity – there are scads of Eric Olsons out there, including a retired admiral, a stem cell researcher and a Harvard Ph.D. who believes his dad was murdered by the CIA.)

We don’t remove stories from our archives, either. If people were later acquitted of the charges, or they were dropped, we will include a note saying as much.

But as I try to explain to people, I can’t really delete the story online any more than I can erase it from all the newspapers that were printed that day and preserved on microfilm at libraries around the state. It’s part of the public record, and part of the newspaper’s job is to keep that record, not expunge or alter it in hindsight.

I sometimes also tell them that they’re complaining to the wrong person. Their beef is with what happens when they type their name into Google’s website – they should take it up with Google. (Google says the opposite, that you should contact the person who controls the website. That might make sense in some cases, but when the content you object to is news, it doesn’t.)

It turns out that in Spain, someone did take this up with Google – and prevailed in court. On balance, the result was worse than an old arrest showing up in a web search of your name.

Forget me: The suit was against Google Spain, and it was about the “right to be forgotten.” In the case, the plaintiff was upset that a Google search turned up a notice of his home being sold at auction in 1998.

The European Union Court basically found that companies such as Google should be required to censor what stories about people turn up in their web searches. The court held that people have a “right to be forgotten” as part of their right to privacy.

The EU Court’s ruling can’t be appealed and affects all 28 countries in the EU – about 500 million people. The court found that search engines must listen to requests to have links to old newspaper articles or other sites containing “outdated or otherwise objectionable information.”

On some level, it makes sense. Mistakes made during the Internet age – like being arrested or writing a column that’s off-base – follow us around in ways that older mistakes never did.

But the court gave no guidance for determining what constitutes vague terms such as “outdated” and “objectionable.”

Since the ruling, Google has been swamped with tens of thousands of requests to have their search engine forget things. Google is parsing these requests and seems to be erring on the side of censorship.  

Maybe they’re doing it to make a point; maybe they just don’t want to risk being liable. Either way, the people who seem most likely to be helped by the decision are high-profile sorts who would rather the public not have information about their past missteps so easily available.

Stories from The Guardian newspaper about a soccer referee who made bad penalty calls and then lied about his reasons for doing so before resigning had disappeared from the search engine, and were then restored.

A blog post from a BBC reporter about the downfall of Stan O’Neal, who was chairman of Merrill Lynch when the subprime lending crisis unfolded, disappeared and has not been restored.

Forget me not: Seems like the people who most stand to benefit from a right to be forgotten are powerful or privileged people who would like us to collectively forget their missteps.

For average people, this wouldn’t be that great a benefit. Most of us recognize the ways the Internet has changed the world, and that skeletons are not as easily kept in the closet. They also recognize that people can in fact learn from past mistakes.

America is known for many things, not least of which is its commitment to free speech and second chances. So long as we’re willing to grant people those second chances, there’s no need for us to start requiring censorship.

To censor the Internet is to ruin the Internet. Let’s just forget about this idea.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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