Fifty years ago information — and misinformation — lived in print or on TV and a request to remove or correct information involved a simple editing process. Now, in the age of the internet, information potentially lives forever.
BYU School of Communications Director Ed Carter said removal or obscuring of information in regards to the internet is “an emerging legal concept” commonly referred to as the right to be forgotten.
He said this concept becomes increasingly complex when applied to situations like the accusations made against America’s newest Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, or any public figure.
Carter said the right to be forgotten has to do with how much information on people is available online, and suggested forgotten is actually a “misnomer.”
“It’s really not forgotten in the sense that information could still live on a web page somewhere. It just won’t come up in the search engine results. And information lives, obviously, in people’s memories. Things aren’t totally wiped clean,” he said.
Google has received over 2.7 million requests to remove URLs as a result of the European Union’s right to be forgotten laws that were enacted in 2014, according to a recent Google transparency report.
Carter said the right to be forgotten is not yet a law in the U.S. and currently only applies to Google and what’s listed on a search. It does not apply to social media platforms where movements like #MeToo exist.
A Pew Research study shows most Americans are opposed to the government restricting information online but would be open to technology companies stepping in.
BYU Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate Lisa Leavitt said social media is one of the first issues she discusses with survivors.
“I tell them, you need to be very careful about who you tell and what you put out there because once somebody has the information, you have no more control over it,” Leavitt said.
She also pointed out that some survivors may want to share their story but remain anonymous, and often social media is not cooperative.
In speaking about Christine Blasey Ford — who came forward with accusations of sexual assault against Kavanagh — Leavitt said social media largely impacted Ford’s life after she came forward with her accusations.
“The assault changed her life forever, but now she’s being assaulted all over again and that will change her life forever too,” Leavitt said.
BYU law professor Michalyn Steele said there are both pros and cons to sharing stories of sexual assault or harassment on social media, as seen with the #MeToo movement.
“I think there has been progress in respecting the credibility of women who come forward, in part by recognizing how difficult it is and also that they gain no benefit,” Steele said. “In fact, they pay a great price for coming forward, as Anita Hill did.”
Steele referenced Anita Hill’s 1991 accusation of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who was later confirmed by the Senate to serve on the nation’s highest court. She pointed out that while Hill’s accusations did not have the atmosphere of today’s #MeToo movement, both Hill and victims who come forward today face a certain level of scrutiny.
Carter said Ford was a private figure who momentarily stepped into the limelight, but she may not be given the opportunity to return to private figure status.
“Undoubtedly, there will be retrospective stories in 10 and 20 years. That’s something to think about for the future; how much will this fade and about whom will it fade? And those are important questions,” Carter said.
As the right to be forgotten applies to Kavanaugh, Carter said two major details come into consideration: his status as a public figure and how the media treats cases involving juveniles.
Carter explained that due to Kavanaugh’s status as a public figure, different standards of the right to be forgotten, or practical obscurity, apply.
“He’s a public figure, and so previous to the Internet, society made the decision that information about public officials and public figures should be more publicly known,” Carter said. “Especially when someone is a nominee to the Supreme Court.”
Even though Kavanaugh was accused of committing assault as a teenager, he was an adult when the allegations came forward; therefore policies in place for juveniles do not apply, Carter explained.
“We have long-standing legal principles that say for juveniles you generally should forget some things or have them obscured, but in some cases not,” Carter said. “And in the case of a public official probably not, especially if it’s a very serious accusation.”
The details of the right to be forgotten are complex as they apply to social media and the Kavanaugh hearings. However, Carter said the principle behind the right to be forgotten is not going anywhere and will continue to evolve.