Remember when that old flame poked you on Facebook and, with one hand strumming the keyboard and the other curled around a refreshing beverage, you shot back something colourfully indiscreet? You don't remember? Damn! Am I the only idiot? Okay, remember that stupid flame war in college in which you pushed the envelope of the English language, and now a string of expletives pops up every time someone Googles your name? No? You must be criminally fortunate. Almost everyone I know has said something silly on the Net and it's etched forever in electronic stone.
But concern over data mining, a completely different issue, could change that. Wonder how almost everything on the internet is free? Well, they aren't. We pay for them with our personal and behavioural information, which is silently mined by websites and distilled into marketing strategies to part us from our cash with surgical precision. A whole lot of people don't like this idea, which amounts to profiling, and the US and the European Union (EU) are moving to restrict invasion of privacy.
The EU proposes an opt-in policy, by which sites should tell people precisely what data they are giving away and offer the option to decline. This would blow away the Web's basic business model and end the era of freebies. But more significantly, the policy proposes to allow people to erase parts of their internet footprint.
Last year, the EU began drafting new laws to address privacy issues, which would also give citizens the 'Right to be Forgotten'. But on Thursday, the Spaniards jumped the gun. Even before the draft is tabled, almost 90 people successfully petitioned the country's data protection watchdog to force Google to remove embarrassing or misleading links about them.
Information warehouses like Google and Facebook discourage demands for content removal by making the appeal process forbiddingly difficult. If Google is forced to pull content now, it will serve as a valuable precedent not only for people who have embarrassed themselves online, but also for those who have been misrepresented. It will help all the people whose fans have lovingly created Wikipedia pages for them, with inaccurate information. And all the prominent citizens whose enemies have created Facebook profiles to impersonate them. Last year, Amartya Sen was unpleasantly surprised to find a fake Amartya Sen on Facebook, affably chatting with the world and advocating right-wing viewpoints which the left-leaning economist deprecates. New laws on privacy and identity would put paid to that sort of thing.
But the Right to be Forgotten could be a dangerous beast to let loose, because bundled with it comes the right to forget, and to force forgetfulness upon others by removing information from the record. It would erase embarrassing but harmless transgressions from your past, of the sort that employers trawl for when you apply to them. But it could also open the door to wholesale erasure of seriously unpleasant history — not just personal but also political. It would amount to doctoring the world's collective memory.
Personally, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of erasing the past. It's better to add content rather than subtract it, to let people annotate their record with apologies, corrections, clarifications, even rants and humour, and thus set it straight.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal.