Many years ago—I'm being gallantly vague about how many—a young writer broke into journalism in the worst possible way. One of America's largest newspapers published a story she'd submitted about her exciting adventure in a far-away land. Unfortunately, the story wasn't true. Nothing of the sort had happened to her—it had happened to someone else and she'd written it up in the first person because it was a lot more exciting that way. Unfortunately, it hadn't happened to someone else either. She'd been flimflammed by a complete stranger who sized her up as credulous beyond compare and got her to bite on an urban legend that had been around forever. Unfortunately, she'd never heard it. Unfortunately, neither had her editor.
The story ran and was promptly exposed and denounced. Exploiting the humiliated author's misfortune, I called her, chattered her up, and wrote a column. And that was that—except that a couple of years later she emailed me with a plaintive request. Her blunder was following her through life and making it miserable: google her name and it was the first thing anybody found out about her. Would I mind taking my column offline? That would help.
Yes, it might have helped, although her original story would have stayed online, as well as her newspaper's repudiation of it. And still hanging out online would have been all the other commentators who'd jumped in with whatever they thought needed to be said about urban legendry, human stupidity, and the evils of journalism. I google her name today and find it still haunted by her youthful folly. The story listed first is from a site dedicated to debunking urban legends. My column is the fourth story down.
No, I didn't take my column down, even though she asked me nicely. I reasoned that I'd written it, we'd published it, and our archive couldn't deny it. Besides, in the brave new digital world we'd hurtled into, there was no way to coax the malign genie of public humiliation back into its bottle.
But I didn't feel good about saying no. Surely, someone her age—mid-20s—had a right to recover from her mistakes as well as learn from them. Thank God that at her age I'd had the right to recover from my own. But I'd had more than a right—I'd had an opportunity. She didn't. Progress had taken it away from her—and who dares call Google anything but progress?
Well, now we have the European Court of Justice saying otherwise. The other day this court, the highest in Europe, ruled in a case brought by a Spaniard unhappy that he could not live down a bad patch in his distant past. The plaintiff had privacy rights that overrode not only "the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public" in knowing whatever the Internet had to tell it about the plaintiff's past, said the court.
The plaintiff, Mario Costega Gonzalez, told the Financial Times, "There is data [on the Internet] that is not relevant and that affects your dignity and your private life." In invoking his own dignity, Costega Gonzalez sounds like many a two-bit tyrant who can't stand to be criticized; but he also sounds like you, me, and a young woman who might sell her soul for a do-over.
Maureen Dowd observes in Wednesday's New York Times that America is the land of "Gatsbyesque reinvention." Yet Americans have a hard time thinking of public access to your life history as anything but an absolute good. The rebuke to this notion now comes from Europe, a place where you can be haunted by what was done by and to your ancestors six centuries ago.
Maybe Europeans value forgetting more than we do because they realize how hard it is.