Should Deleting Personal Information Online Be a Right?

Posted on in Finance
Hand touching privacy on search bar on tablet screen
Q. My friend and I disagree about whether people who are not in the public eye should have the legal right to force websites to remove (or search engines to unlink) any information about themselves that is erroneous, intimate or badly outdated. I say yes. But he says, “Internet content should live forever, like it or not.” What do you think?

A. I lean toward your position, but within limits. I believe that websites and search engines should be obligated to comply with requests to remove information (or block its easy retrieval) under certain circumstances, including the following:

  • The information is demonstrably false;
  • The information lacks important facts about the outcome of a bad situation — for example, that an arrest resulted in the charges being dropped or the accused person’s acquittal;
  • The negative information is so old — say, a story about a person’s youthful indiscretion or minor legal offense — that the individual is entitled to a fresh start, a “clean slate”;
  • The content (music, photography, literature, etc.) is protected by copyright and is being distributed without the owner’s consent;
  • The information reveals personal financial data that could be used for identity theft;
  • Intimate personal information — for example, about one’s health or private sexual activity — was posted not by the individual depicted, but by someone intent on humiliating her or him;
  • The online information was posted long ago by a youthful commentator — say, in an academic paper, online blog or column in a college newspaper — and expresses inflammatory opinions that were later disavowed by the writer.

These guidelines would help achieve a balance between two conflicting rights: on the one hand, the public’s right (actually, an insatiable and somewhat voyeuristic desire) to know or learn, through Web searches, virtually everything about everyone; and on the other hand, a nonpublic citizen’s right to “privacy by obscurity,” or the “right to be forgotten.”