May 22, 2014 | Vol. 118 -- No. 5

Information control is more complicated then hitting 'delete'

In Our Opinion

Do we own a “right to be forgotten” regarding things in our past? Do we own all the information generated about ourselves?

A recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union in a public records case out of Spain might have provided a resounding “Yes” to both questions. On May 13, Europe’s highest court gave individuals the ability to expunge their online records of past indiscretions such as old debts, previous arrests and other unflattering incidents by requiring search engine companies like Google to honor these requests.

According to an Associated Press story, the court said “people should have some say over what information comes up when someone Google’s them.” Proponents hailed the ruling as a victory for privacy rights in a medium where information leaves a “permanent electronic trace.” Opponents warned it could interfere with the free flow of online public information and lead to censorship.

It’s not likely the ruling in Europe will affect public record acquisition in the United States, where we operate under the Constitution’s First Amendment and in Washington, the state’s Sunshine Laws. But it raises questions about online information, whether via social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter or information published by more formal media organizations such as the New York Times, the Spokesman-Review and even the Cheney Free Press.

The nature of information sharing is changing, and rapidly, thanks to the Internet. In the past, news of a less-than-flattering story about someone appearing in print traveled slowly, limited to those who subscribed to a newspaper or magazine or who took the time to either buy one or look it up at a local library.

Today, that same information can go world wide almost instantly once it is uploaded to the web. It’s there to be had by anybody.

Inaccurate information needs to be addressed swiftly. Take for instance the unfortunate incorrect listing of an individual’s first name in a May 6 Spokesman story about the sentencing of a man caught in online trading of child pornography.

While a discussion can go on about the newspaper’s Page 2 placement of a correction in its print edition the next day, they did change the online version of the story to list the correct man’s name. It was a mistake, but a mistake addressed quickly online.

But what about correct information, such as an incident in a police report? It’s something we come up against every now and then.

Someone will contact us to let us know charges filed in the original incident were either dismissed, dropped or they were found innocent, and request the report be deleted from the original online story. The problem though, is the original report was a record of police activity, not a determination of guilt or innocence. The fact the person had a potential court case dropped, or a decision made to not file charges, means something did take place.

Our solution online is to find the original report, confirm the outcome, and insert a dated editor’s note detailing that outcome.

But even though the original report information is correct, do the fact charges never materialized mean the original incident never occurred? And it’s not just police reports either.

In Europe, the Court’s decision means stories about personal improprieties, or things like a botched surgical operation, could be removed at the individual’s request — even if the original story were proven true.

If that becomes a broader practice, how then would we ever know what was real about what we read online? That’s the stuff of science fiction.

The reality is we do own information about ourselves, and the best way to enact control over it is to make sure others don’t discover it by our careless use of social media.

We can also control it by making sure we never get into trouble with the law and that we exercise personal responsibility over our financial and personal situations.

We can control public information about ourselves by living our lives wisely.

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