Paul Ford at Businessweek wrote a very compelling post to make the case for “Erase My History” by Google and the other search engines and about his experience at digitizing the Harper Magazine archive. He made two important points:
First, not everyone knows how to create new and more relevant content that will push older, perhaps embarrassing news to the far reaches of Siberia, er, page 3 of search results:
“Full participants in Internet culture–which includes nearly all members of the media–are already controlling their public Web personas. Some of us do that deliberately, hosting our own web pages and blogs, running Tumblrs, and the like. For others, it happens by default: We fill out LinkedIn profiles and write blog posts with our names on them; we tweet and tweet. If we do unsavory things, we know to do them under pseudonyms. As a result, when we search for ourselves, we are familiar, and often pleased, with the results.”
In the tech universe we assume people know how to manage online identities smartly. Mr. Ford pointed out that not everyone knows how to do this. Also, the ability to create and share personal content and to ensure that that content is on top of one’s search results is fairly new, possibly only from the last decade. Many of the archival items brought online (like the letter writer in the article) were written way before then, with the writer never imagining the “eternal internet” paradigm. The letter writer intended the letter to be published once, in magazine with a short shelf life, not as part of a future digital, searchable archive. Today we’re very much aware that whatever we share online will live forever.
Second, sometimes the trade-off is easy to call. But who decides what is big?
“In practical terms, such requests were rare–a few per year, and were evaluated and discussed as they came in. The traffic that Google sent to these articles was of vanishing monetary value to the magazine. But the person asking us to keep an article out of Google’s index had a tremendous amount to gain–possibly an opportunity to be gainfully employed, and also peace of mind. As long as they were not asking us to hide coverage of a past crime, it was clear that the greater good would be served by keeping their name out of Google’s search results. These were not famous or notorious people, but normal people caught up in the sweep of a search engine trying to reclaim agency over their own lives.”
OK, so for Harper Magazine, the requests were few, giving them time and resources to evaluate their validity. For the case he provided, a low monetary benefit was weighed opposite great personal gain and the magazine decided to do the right thing.
But what if it wasn’t easy to call. What if the magazine received so many requests they no longer had the resources to review each one? What if the benefit to the magazine was not negligible? What if the article brought in thousands of views each day? What if the harm to the individual was miniscule, like an unflattering photo?
And who gets to decide? I read somewhere that perhaps petitioners should only approach Google when they had a judge’s approval. Does Google automatically have to accept all such requests?
Looking at five requests that Google has already received based on this ruling shows that the people who are asking to erase links are not as innocent as the situation described by Mr. Ford. In fact, the so-called “greater public good” would not be served by removing the links they requested. Again, is Google required by the new ruling to accept them?
As Alice said: curiouser and curiouser!