Internet Privacy Doesn’t Mean A Thing … Yet.

What would it look like for Internet privacy to be not an ideal, but a right, so that personal data could be hidden, deleted, and not return to loom over the future?

  • In this Digital Age it seems that anything uploaded to the web stays there for good.
    Photo by Fotolia/Victoria
  • “Ctrl+Z: The Right to Be Forgotten” by Meg Leta Jones
    Photo courtesy of New York University Press

In this age of social media and connectivity, anything that goes up online might not ever come down. And this data from our pasts — no matter how far removed from our present — has proven its potential to ruin futures in the time it takes to click on a link. The consequences of this available data have ranged from embarrassing to devastating, jeopardizing careers, reputations, and relationships, with the worst part being that there is no defense against personal data that’s no longer personal. In Ctrl+Z by Meg Leta Jones (New York University Press, 2016), readers are presented with a long-overdue solution to this haunting problem: a digital right to be forgotten. Proponents argue the benefits of legally requiring Internet entities to delete, hide, or make anonymous content as requested by users. Critics say it’s a technologically impossible attack on free speech and open access. But Ctrl+Z offers a simple, concise, and nuanced look at the possibilities an idea like this could bring. Jones encourages readers to broaden our perspectives and examine our myriad of choices when it comes to our right to let bygones be bygones and let our past remain forgotten, even in the tangles of the World Wide Web.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.


Two cases addressing the complicated concerns of reputation, identity, privacy, and memory in the Digital Age were decided the same day on opposite sides of the Atlantic with different conclusions. The first began in Spain. In 2010, Mario Costeja González requested that a Spanish newspaper remove information about a sale of his property related to insolvency proceedings. When the paper refused, he requested that Google remove the search results that included the information. Google’s refusal led to litigation in the Court of Justice of the European Union. On May 13, 2014, the court ordered Google to edit the results retrieved when González’s name was searched because the information about the property sale was “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing at issue carried out by the operator of the search engine.”

On the same day in the U.S., two American Idol contestants brought every conceivable claim against Viacom, MTV, and a number of other defendants over online content that led to their disqualification from the television show. These two contestants made it to the “Top 32” round when information about their earlier arrests was published on websites like Smoking Gun. The hopeful singers had not disclosed their arrests to the show’s producers. An unexceptional U.S. case, all of their claims were dismissed by the Tennessee district court for two main reasons. First, some of the claims were too old. Even though the Internet allows for continued public accessibility, under Tennessee state law, defamation claims must be filed within one year from the time the content was published. Second, any lawsuit in the U.S. seeking damages for the publication of true information is not going to get far.

Although the facts of the cases differ in ways that matter to the law as well as to public opinion, both involved parties asking the judicial system to limit the damage of digital content that would otherwise remain available for an indefinite period of time. Policymakers around the globe are being pressed to figure out a systematic response to the threat of digital memory — and it is a complex threat involving uncertain technological advancements, disrupted norms, and divergent values.

On October 12, 2012, fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life after posting a desperate YouTube video explaining the details of how she was bullied. In the video, the vulnerable girl explained that a scandalous image she was convinced to create led to brutal on- and offline torment. She suffered from depression and anxiety as a result; in the video, she holds a card that reads, “I can never get that photo back.” In 2008, Max Mosley, a former head of Formula One racing, was awarded £60,000 in damages by an English High Court in a claim against the British News of the World newspaper for publishing a story detailing his involvement in an allegedly Nazi-themed, sadomasochistic, prostitution-filled orgy — complete with video. In an effort to remove the material related to the event, Mosley brought legal action in twenty- two countries and sought deletion from almost two hundred websites in Germany alone by 2011. The most recent of Mosley’s claims for removal was filed against Google to hide the remaining links to the story. Just months later, terrorists murdered twelve people in Paris as retribution for satirical depictions of Muhammad published by a French newspaper and circulated online, prompting interior ministers from European Union countries to call for Internet service providers to find and take down online content that “aims to incite hatred and terror” as well as to allow governments to monitor activity to prevent future attacks.

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