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‘Please forget me!’

The mountain, the viper and the internet.

shadowed figure overlooking city lights

It used to be that diamonds, friends, memories and herpes were the only things that lasted forever. In the digital age, you can add … stuff about a person on the internet.

That’s what Mario Costejo Gonzalez of Spain discovered when he ‘Googled’ himself in 2010. He found links to notices published in a Spanish daily newspaper in 1998 announcing the foreclosure of his home and sale of his belongings. With his debt issues behind him, the existence of the publications was embarrassing and an invasion of privacy. He wanted all reference to the enforcement proceedings against him expunged from cyberspace and sought a remedy from the Spanish Data Protection Agency.

The SDPA ruled the newspaper had legally published the information but found that Google, the search engine operator, was required to delete the offending links from its search results, as a breach of Gonzalez’s privacy and dignity in accordance with a European Union directive on personal information protection. The matter was eventually appealed to the European Court of Justice, which upheld the claimant’s ‘right to be forgotten’.

While the decision is applicable only in Europe, Google was soon besieged by all manner of requests from persons seeking to escape their past, including:

  • a former politician who asked that news story links about his previous term in office be removed because he wanted to run again;
  • a convicted child pornographer requesting that links about his crime be deleted;
  • a physician wanting links to negative RateADoc comments to be redacted; and
  • a guy who tried to kill his family who sought to have news links about the event suppressed from search results.

Most of us live our lives in relative quiet and anonymity. I am so ordinary that I hardly ever get noticed. In law school, I would wear bland clothing so I could blend in with the wall paint and avoid being called on in tax class. I don’t mind flying under the radar and sometimes I like to be left alone.

Conversely, many people now use social media or the internet to draw attention to themselves. It is not always a good idea and can come back to bite you. Consider political candidate Allan Hunsperger who ran in Alberta’s 2012 provincial election. Some time earlier, he had unwisely chosen to debate Lady Gaga over the internet regarding the premise underlying her hit song Born This Way. He blogged that those born that way, who didn’t change and died that way, would spend eternity in a “lake of fire.” The comments surfaced during the election campaign. He was not elected.

One’s words, once committed to the internet, are usually irretrievable. The practice of self-editing is a sensible control measure. If you make a typo and post without proofreading, people will think you’re illiterate. If you post without the benefit of sober second thought, you may end up sounding like an idiot, offending someone, or both. I have accounts on Twitter and LinkedIn and I occasionally contribute to blogs. I am not as active on social media as some and before I hit the post button, I always pause to ask myself: What would my boss think of this if he read it? Or better yet: What would the Chief Justice of Canada think?

But there’s little you can do to protect yourself from what others write about you on the internet — short of the law of defamation — which does not protect you from factual statements, except in some circumstances in Quebec.

Critics of the Gonzalez-like ‘right to be forgotten’ rightly point to its negatives: the obscuring of truth, and the curtailment of free speech and the public’s right to know.

In the internet age, all digital pathways lead to the court. It is only a matter of time until this issue is litigated in Canada, the most digitalized jurisdiction in the world. It will be an epic battle of democratic values that will likely only be settled in the Supreme Court of Canada. One anticipates a titanic fight on the scale of the trial by combat scene in Season 4, Episode 8 of Game of Thrones.

But instead of The Mountain and the Viper, it will be The Public’s Right to Know versus The Right to be Forgotten.