Escaping Your Online Mistakes: Should There Be a Law?

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How many times in your online life have you wished for a "do-over"? That kind of Jimmy Stewart "It's a Wonderful Life" second chance to make something -- a photo, a Karaoke Bar performance caught on video, an ill-fated online tirade, or a 140-character Twitter poison dart -- disappear as if it had never happened? Because so much of our lives are now chronicled and archived on the Internet, some have begun to look for a way to make this happen, perhaps in the form of an almost magical "eraser button" or through a legislative mandate creating a so-called "right to be forgotten."

These efforts are gaining traction in the European Union, where regulators are considering ways to create a legally enforceable "right to be forgotten" online. Depending on the scope of this "right," it could give people the right to demand removal of any information that appears about them online. The European Commission has voiced its support for the creation of such a right, arguing that people, "should have the 'right to be forgotten' when their data is no longer needed or they want their data to be deleted."

Laws Spread in Europe

The idea already has a strong foothold in Europe. In France, the idea is characterized as le Droit à l'Oubli (the right to oblivion). In Germany, the idea has already featured in a court case involving two notorious convicted murderers who served their time and now want the stories of their crimes expunged from the U.S.-based website Wikipedia based on their rights under German privacy law. And in Spain, Google has come under attack for invading personal privacy in breach of the country's "right to be forgotten" law that allows people to control information about them. Google's alleged violation of the Spanish law? Returning search results for websites that include inaccurate or outdated information about people. (Google is fighting the claim.)

Here in the U.S. we have no "right to be forgotten." Users have some rights under a patchwork of privacy laws, scattered across various sectors (including the financial and health care sectors), which protect personal information to various degrees and provide users with some limited ability to correct or have removed erroneous information (such as reports of missed payments on one's credit report). Recently, there have been calls for the creation of some kind of "eraser button" that could be used to "disappear" information from social networks. But any description or implementation of a "right to be forgotten" here in the U.S. remains vague and undefined. There's a good reason for that: the complexities inherent in the idea of controlling the flow of information online are legion, and the U.S. Constitution protects speech that some people would like to forget.

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