At the Y

Q&A: The Internet Never Forgets

A portrait of Ed Carter in a suit and tie, against a white background. He is looking directly at the camera.
BYU School of Communications director Ed Carter. Photo by Brad Slade

You can’t change the past, but thanks to a new legal movement, you may be able to erase some of it online. Here we ask School of Communications director Edward L. Carter (BA ’96, JD ’03), coeditor of the new book Google: Right to Oblivion and Ethical Challenges in the Digital Media Space, about the right to be forgotten, a new legal protection in the European Union that is getting attention in the United States.

What is the right to be forgotten?

It is the question of how much information about us other entities should be able to control and publish online when we think it’s out of date, irrelevant, or out of proportion with the passage of time. It’s a bit of a misnomer because, really, it’s not forgotten. It’s just how prominent that information is going to be in search-engine results.

What do people want taken offline?

Things from false claims and old debts to embarrassing photos and outdated stories. A BYU example: A former student said a humorous statement he made, quoted online in a Universe article, was still affecting his dating life years later when people searched his name. It was really serious for him.

What kind of privacy protections could one expect pre-internet?

The Supreme Court used a phrase in the late 1980s—practical obscurity. While some things are in the public record, they faded from memory, or were practically obscure, because they were not easily accessible. But today information about us is ever present. It can be retained our whole lives and beyond. That changes the situation. Because of that, the idea of the right to be forgotten arose.

We often think of privacy as a fundamental right, but it’s not explicit in the Constitution. In the United States, we have discrete privacy laws protecting medical (HIPPA) and educational (FERPA) records, but privacy in general is still undefined and emerging.

Can things be removed now?

Employees of companies in Silicon Valley are mostly making those decisions, abdicating a potentially important government role to private corporations.

The juvenile court system, for example, seals or even deletes juveniles’ records when they become adults. If social media is retaining things that the juvenile court system doesn’t even retain, we’ve got to address that.

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