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Deleting Your Digital Past: The Right to be Forgotten

You probably have searched for your name on the Internet. You're not alone. The practice of self-googling is common among Internet users. In a survey conducted in April and May of 2013, the Pew Research Center in the US found that 56% of Internet users had used a search engine to look up their own names to see what information about them was available online.

You're also not the only one who would Google your name. According to a survey conducted in early 2014 by CareerBuilder, an online employment website in the US, 53% of employers use social networking sites to research on job candidates.

To make sure that your job-hunting or promotion-seeking efforts will not be derailed by some unsavory parts of your past, you may want to make the Internet forget. Mario Costeja González knows how hard it could be. In 1998, a Spanish newspaper published a short notice about a house owned by Costeja being auctioned to pay off his debts. Costeja cleared up the financial difficulties, but there's a problem: news about the auction still features prominently whenever his name was searched on the Internet. And he felt that this cast a shadow on his reputation.

Costeja turned to the Spanish Data Protection Agency and the case ended up in the European Court of Justice, which ruled in May that Google must remove links to irrelevant and outdated data on request. The ruling has established a digital 'right to be forgotten'.

According to Google, it has received about 160,000 requests for removal as of early November 2014, involving more than 500,000 URLs. Google declined to accede to about 58% of those requests, citing public interest. For example, it denied a request from a former clergyman in the UK to remove two links to articles covering an investigation of sexual abuse accusations while he was wearing a collar.

Some people saw the potential to profit from the ruling, which has spawned a new industry of services. Service providers like the aptly named Forget.me and Hit Search help people submit removal requests as a free or paid service.

But you might have to wait if you want to engage their service. For the moment Google removes links from search results only in European versions of Google. Our Privacy Commissioner Chiang Yam-wang Allan has already urged the search engine giant to extend the 'right to be forgotten' to Hong Kong and elsewhere beyond the European Union. So it may take a while before we in this part of the world can clean up our not-so-glorious past online.


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