In our study on Civility in America this year, we asked about opinions on the “right to be forgotten” law. The what law? The easiest way to explain it comes from Wikipedia: The right to be forgotten “reflects the claim of an individual to have certain data deleted so that third persons can no longer trace them. It has been defined as ‘the right to silence on past events in life that are no longer occurring.’ The right to be forgotten leads to allowing individuals to have information, videos or photographs about themselves deleted from certain internet records so that they cannot be found by search engines.” A law like this exists in the EU. Of course, it is a lot more complex than I am making this out to be and I am simplifying the discussion and ongoing debate in this post.
What I want to share is the results when we asked Americans “if search engines such as Google were required to erase negative commentary or pictures that appeared online upon request, would you take advantage of the opportunity to erase things about yourself?” We were curious what Americans would choose to do if given the opportunity to clean up their digital profiles. One out of two (50%) say they would take advantage of a reputation eraser but a sizeable 3 out of 10 are not sure (hmmmm) and 2 out of 10 say they would not take advantage (they either have nothing to hide or don’t mind airing their dirty laundry). As expected, younger people are significantly more likely to say they would opt for deleting foolish things they’ve done to reshape their personal brands. That makes sense because Millennials and GenXers grew up with the Internet for the most part. The older generations have less digital footprints to worry about.
When we asked who should be given the right to be forgotten, Americans were most likely to say that those under 18 years of age should be given the right to erase parts of their digital identities (68% said so). Those naughty high school pictures would all but evaporate online if this were the case. Less than one-third of Americans think that school teachers (33%), doctors (26%) and religious leaders (25%) should be allowed to airbrush their digital footprints. The group with the least right to eradicate what they have done wrong or where they have acted uncivilly are politicians (only 18% felt they had the right to undo their past). Americans clearly demand to know as much as possible about the character of our politicians. From what we learn every day in the headlines about corruption and wrongdoing on Capitol Hill, it is a good thing that our political representatives cannot delete their pasts from us.
The reason that this law has not taken hold in America has to do with our constitutional rights to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. We do not believe in keeping useful information out of the public domain. Ultimately, when it comes to reputation in the age of the Internet, we are never forgotten. We have to get used to it.