Europe's highest court recently ordered Google to delete search results if requested by its users, under the auspices of a "the right to be forgotten." On Friday, Google revealed a new website designed, specifically, to handle the tidal wave of takedown requests it will be receiving.
It was a sweeping victory for anyone who has ever posted dumb, embarrassing crap to the Internet, and promised a fresh start for anyone with a worrisome digital trail that could come back to haunt them.
To better understand the ruling, it can be instructive to recall a French law that recognizes le droit à l'oubli, or the "right to oblivion." Georgetown University Law professor Jeff Rosen describes it as "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 essence, the ability to start anew is viewed as vital to a continued existence.
The problem though—and it is an obvious one—is that the vastness and velocity of the viral web makes it impossible for anyone to erase their digital trail completely. Certainly, eliminating search results can be helpful, as in the case of Eoin McKeogh, a student who was wrongly excoriated by the Internet's hivemind when a Dublin cabdriver posted a video and accused him of not paying his fare. McKeogh was in Japan at the time, and the man in the video was revealed to be someone else entirely.
The reason that digital trails won't be eliminated is that the EU's order doesn't erase content on the web specifically: embarrassing spring break photos, incriminating blog posts, accusations of criminality, and the like. Rather, Google merely removes those links from its search results, making it harder for anyone interested—perhaps future employers—to find it. To apply, European users have to provide Google with a name and email address, photo identification, a concise explanation of why the search result is "irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate," and a signature.
One glance at the paperwork should give you a good idea of the enormity of the task ahead. Since investigations and judgment calls will need to be conducted by a human, one can imagine the backlog that would quickly accumulate. (Perhaps the company's newly acquired advanced new artificial intelligence technologies could be put to work.)
The ruling presents a dizzying logistical mountain to climb for any search company. It isn't a perfect analog, but last month alone, Google was said to receive more than 23 million requests to remove copyrighted material, like YouTube videos. Google, of course, is not pleased, but says it will comply with the EU to the best of its ability. As a Google spokesman tells The Wall Street Journal: "The court's ruling requires Google to make difficult judgments about an individual's right to be forgotten and the public's right to know."