The right to be forgotten: is it possible to truly erase a digital footprint?

A remarkable ruling was made by the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg earlier this week. In an unprecedented step, it declared that search giant Google must now look to amend some search results at the request of ordinary people like you and I. Reporting on the ruling, BBC News stated, “the judgement stresses that the rights of the individual are paramount when it comes to their control over their personal data, although there is a public interest defence when it comes to people in public life.”

The announcement followed an appeal made by Spaniard Mario Costeja Gonzalez for Google to stop displaying a search result showing that his house had been auctioned following running into financial difficulties more than a decade before. By responding to his case so favourably, the Court of Justice of the European Union has now set a significant precedent that could have monumental consequences for technology going forward.

Google has already responded to the announcement by stating that the ruling was “disappointing,” and pointing out that “it does not control data, it only offers links to information freely available on the internet.” Technology advocates have also weighed in on the verdict, with the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones commenting, “the judgement could have huge consequences for anyone who publishes material online about individuals, and they will urgently be asking their lawyers exactly what it means … Google, having won at earlier stages of this legal battle, is both surprised and furious at this outcome. But it isn’t clear that the search firm can do anything about it.”

How this ruling will affect Google and other search engines in the long run currently remains unclear – but what this ruling does highlight is that individuals are becoming increasingly aware of their digital footprint and the implications this can potentially have on their later life.

With so much data, is it possible to be forgotten?

We now live in a very different age to previous generations.

The rise of the world wide web, and particularly the far-reaching popularity of social networking sites, has made the world seem a far smaller place by delivering instant access to a treasure trove of information and resources.

Almost any detail that we would like to find out about organisations, subject matters and, in many cases, individuals in now available at the click of a mouse. But while companies are facing up to the need to be transparent, many individuals may not understand just how much personal information they have voluntarily left behind as part of their digital footprint.

To share or not to share, that is the question

When historians reflect back on society’s swift and widespread adoption of social media, one of the observations they will undoubtedly make is the willingness of once-guarded societies to wave goodbye to their privacy and share the most personal of information on public forums for anyone to see. Thanks to the likes of Facebook and Instagram, ‘over-sharing’ is now commonplace and accepted practice, with users across the globe sharing intimate family snaps, date of birth details, financial information and many other pieces of personal content that previously would have been kept under lock and key.

By voluntarily offering up so much personal information via social media channels, are we not all guilty of putting ourselves and our lives in the public domain? As such, do we ultimately have control of what can and can’t be searched for online when searches are carried out against our names?

The short answer, in my opinion, is no. Put simply, regardless of how this ruling ultimately pans out, individuals must also take responsibility for any content that they choose to place online regarding their lives.

I made the decision when our child was born to  go against the cultural grain of what is now widely accepted and to not make any grand announcements proclaiming our offspring’s name, gender and date of birth and intimate birthing experiences.

Despite being a big advocate of social media in my professional life and an immensely proud new father,  I made this difficult – and, dare I say, unpopular – decision alongside my wife in order to allow our child to make their own decision about which information and personal details they choose to share online as they grow. Growing up in the 21st century, my child’s online footprint will be there for many, many years to come and as such it is not up to me, as a parent, to decide which information is out there in the public domain.

Ultimately, as individuals engaging with the internet and social media each and every day, we all must take responsibility for the information that we freely share – and consider the consequences of our digital footprints catching up with us in later life.