U.S. lawmakers have been tightening regulations over who can read emails, direct messages and other private online communications. But what about information that's out in the public already? If I Google my own name, I can find my own writings. (Some good, some not so good.) I can find very well-argued criticisms of my work. And there was a time when I could find a gun rights discussion board that included death threats because of a post I once wrote. (That, thankfully, has now disappeared.)

Who owns all this data, and what do I do if it doesn't paint me in a flattering light? 

These questions are at the heart of a complex debate about the future of the Internet and our concepts of privacy. On the one hand, European lawmakers have been seeking to enforce something called the "Right to be Forgotten." On the other hand, freedom of speech advocates have been warning of a "chilling effect" on public discourse. In many ways, the problem gets at fundamental differences in how concepts like freedom and privacy are viewed across cultures. 

Here's how the Stanford Law Review summed up the issue back in 2012: In theory, the right to be forgotten addresses an urgent problem in the digital age: it is very hard to escape your past on the Internet now that every photo, status update, and tweet lives forever in the cloud. But Europeans and Americans have diametrically opposed approaches to the problem. In Europe, the intellectual roots of the right to be forgotten can be found in French law, which recognizes le droit à l’oubli — or the “right of oblivion” — a right that allows a convicted criminal who has served his time and been rehabilitated to object to the publication of the facts of his conviction and incarceration. In America, by contrast, publication of someone’s criminal history is protected by the First Amendment, leading Wikipedia to resist the efforts by two Germans convicted of murdering a famous actor to remove their criminal history from the actor’s Wikipedia page.

The article goes on to explain that the "right to be forgotten" encompasses several different levels of control over our data, each with progressively more impact on the rights of others to express themselves freely. These can be broadly summarized as:

  • Control over our own publications: If I post a photo of myself on Facebook that I later regret, should I later be allowed to delete it from my own accounts? As the Stanford Law Review article notes, this is relatively uncontroversial. Most social media sites and other services already provide this function, so codifying it should not be a major issue.
  • Control over other people's use of our data: If a friend has shared the photo that I want to delete, should I be able to force them and/or Facebook to take that photo down?
  • Control over what other people publish about us: If someone else publishes an unflattering photo or embarrassing or hurtful (but true) material, what right do I have to control that data? 
  • Control over links and references to data: What about services that don't publish data themselves, but instead link to that data? There have already been lawsuits in countries ranging from Germany to Argentina to Spain forcing Google to take down links to photos or articles containing true but embarrassing information. 
Issues of privacy ought to be considered separately to issues like libel/defamation or copyright and intellectual property. In the case of libel/defamation, it's fairly uncontroversial to suggest that we should have redress against information that is deemed untrue. The options for seeking that redress may be cumbersome, and there may be arguments for updating such laws in the age of the Internet, but correcting untruths and removing painful or embarrassing truths are two separate issues. Similarly, copyright and intellectual property ought to be a separate concern. If I post an image or write an article online, that doesn't necessarily give someone the right to use it. If I post it on a site that — through its terms of service — owns that data and allows users to share it, then my control (or lack of control) over that image enters a different legal and moral dimension. 

Ultimately, we may simply be reaching a point where our existing laws, and perhaps even concepts of privacy, no longer reflect the world we live in. I suspect this problem can only partially be solved through law. The bigger issue is teaching all of us to navigate a vastly different media, technological and cultural landscape, a landscape where we need to be savvy about how our data is likely to be used, and how hard it is to wrestle back control of it later. Teaching our kids how to be safe online is an element. As is educating ourselves about the privacy tools on Facebook and other social media sites. But what else can we do if we're not happy about what's out there?

Following a landmark European Court ruling in May which found that certain users can ask search engines to remove results for queries that include their name where those results are "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed," Google now provides European users with a "right to be forgotten" tool. A new company called forget.me aims to further simplify that process. 

If you are active on social media, however, deleting yourself entirely from the Internet is easier said than done. As evidenced by the video below.

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