Last month, there was a very interesting decision out of the European Court of Justice. The decision established what can be called the “right to be forgotten“. People can now ask search engines like Google to remove links from search results about them.
So, for example, say you are now a successful businessman. However, the first search results for your name is a slightly embarrassing incident that took place in your youth. Now, you can ask Google to “forget” about that incident so it won’t show up first when someone searches for your name.
You can debate whether this is a good idea or not. Europeans like myself tend to think this is a good idea – after all, who else should control your data but you, right? Americans tend to look at it as a free speech issue. There is a cultural divide here that will not be easy to resolve.
What it does teach us, though, is how much data there is out there about all of us. Our web browsing, our purchases, our personal information – it’s all out there in the hands of various companies. And what are they doing with it? There’s an adage that says that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. The real customers are advertisers who want to sell you whatever it is they’re selling.
Now, some will say that this isn’t all bad. After all, don’t you get free services and more relevant advertising? How can this be a bad thing?
It’s not necessarily a bad thing either. What it has to be is an informed decision by users – that they give up some of their data in exchange for some service of value to them. Today, it’s hard to say that is the case – too often, the allure of “free” trumps everything else, and people will give up data about themselves without being completely aware.
Privacy is ultimately defined by what people decide to share or not. It remains to be seen what people decide should be made public and what remains “forgotten”, as it were.
More of my thoughts on privacy can be found in the following video: