Is it just them or does everything have to be cleansed?

It is quite clearly right and just that not all of our past behaviour follows us around as an anchor upon our ambitions. We were all young once and that means some very large percentage of us were also stupid. We’ve encoded this into the very law with the idea of convictions for this or that being spent. Even though we did it, got caught and sentenced, it’s no longer relevant and thus doesn’t appear in basic – at least – searches about our criminal or not past.

We’ve also, more controversially, gone on to say that such shouldn’t turn up in Google searches either. That’s a bit more of a problem:

Criminals are to have the “right to be forgotten” after Google lost a landmark High Court case to a businessman who asked it to remove information about his conviction.

The man, who cannot be identified, had a spent conviction for conspiracy to carry out surveillance and had been sent to prison for six months.

Mr Justice Warby, sitting in the High Court, said his offending and sentence, which was served over a decade ago, was “of little if any relevance” to future business activity and ordered that the links should be “delisted”.

“The crime and punishment information has become out of date, irrelevant and of no sufficient legitimate interest to users of Google Search to justify its continued availability, so that an appropriate delisting order should be made,” he said.

The man also had a young, second family, as well as adult children, which added to his case for privacy under the Human Rights Act, the judge said. He did not award any damages.

My own view is that we shouldn’t be doing this. What is relevant depends upon what the person with the information thinks is relevant, not what some judge does. I’m out of step, as is so often true.

But here comes the problem – how deep does and should the cleaning of that past go? Is it, for example, legal to include the information in a blog post? In the search function of a particular site? Are the newspaper archives reporting the original conviction to be cleansed?

That is, how much are we to change our record of history in order to protect that right to privacy, which is where the cleanse itself comes from? My supposition is that the law doesn’t just apply to search engines – so, where does it end?

Do we ban and or burn books that were published containing that information when it was entirely legal to do so?

Support Continental Telegraph Donate


  1. WTF’s “conspiracy to carry out surveillance” when it’s at home & when did surveillance become a crime?

    That said, one of the advantages of this here interweb is the ubiquity of information is returning us to the “village” culture human societies grew from. To have good information about the people we deal with. Why would you want to blunt this? What people have done in the past is an indicator of what they might do in the future. Maybe they’ve learnt lessons from past mistakes. Maybe they haven’t. Maybe, when they’ve worn out their welcome in one place, they go elsewhere & wear it out all over again on another bunch of victims.
    The more information the better. We all have things in our past lives we might prefer others not to know. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be to their advantage to know them. And vice versa. Maybe if we all knew more about each other it wouldn’t be a problem

    • I like that. Village life is Polanyi’s network of mutual obligations in the jargon terms. Which is exactly how many think the economy should be. Usually the same people who insist that we shouldn’t have the information to be able to make that network work.

      • And information likes to be free, Tim. We can be sure that the State has records of past convictions. Likely credit control agencies etc. Why should the powerful reserve information for themselves & deny it to the majority?

      • In the U.S. we used to have a near-complete right to forget our pasts. In The Fugitive, suspect Richard Kimble essentially started his live over in a new small town every week until some small thing tipped off the Inspector and he tried to apprehend him in his wife’s murder case. (Employers did need social security numbers back then, but there was no nationwide tracking.)

        Corporate intensity about obtaining one’s cradle-to-grave dossier and passwords to social media did not emerge because the previous state of affairs didn’t work – but because government made it so hard to fire people once you hired them. Likewise renting or borrowing money from a bank. The hunger for personal information is corporations trying to even the odds once again.

  2. There was another case that Google won where the convicted man did 4 years in jail for conspiring to account falsely.

    I’m also sympathetic to the idea of spent convictions but I’m not sure I want someone who conspired to accounting fraud working in my accounts department no matter how long ago the crime was committed.

  3. Is it even feasible for Google to enact this? The case might be mentioned on a wide variety of sites – newspapers, blogs, legal reference sites, blog comments….. How would Google be able to de link all of those locations?

  4. Yes, it’s impossible to purge everything. Yes, the “right to be forgotten” is an artificial right, like the UN’s “right to a nationality,” which mostly slips government a shiny new power. Real rights are negative rights, my right to live free from external coercion, not to obtain health care or a living wage. I don’t even have a right to a reputation, as it exists in the minds of other people.

    Again, my gossipy neighbors use small bits of personal information on me for personal profit (mostly improving their standing in town and acquiring gossip allies). Google uses machines to harvest great deals of it for profit. I feel the latter should be illegal but don’t see a qualitative difference from the former.

  5. Could you argue if it wasn’t relevant the search algorithms would bury the link so deeply that no one would bother clicking through the pages to it?
    My name is so common everyone complains they can’t find me on LinkedIn as there’s so many results returned so finding my traffic offence from teenage years would be nigh on impossible even if it was online.

  6. What’s really scandalous is this whole discussion has only had one journalist – Gareth Corfield at El Reg – covering it from start to finish. None of the mainstream journalists have been interested. He was the only one at the public deliberations.

  7. There’s 2 ways to address technological change. Either you can a) accept it, and rearrange society around it, or b) you can fight it. Eventually, you end up with a)

    I think this is one of those things. People are used to stuff being forgotten. News was transient, what you did at school didn’t get carried very far. But it wasn’t like everything was forgotten. You’d remember Peter Sutcliffe. Major porn stars struggled to exit the industry and do something legit because people recognised them.

    To the kids growing up, this is just some old people’s shit. They’ve grown up with stuff being permanent.

  8. The saying used to go “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper”, which was about as good a way of defining the transience of news at that time.

    Today, matters are far different and the weight of memory of the interwebs is not only massive it is growing both forwards and backwards in time. How long will it be until the Googleverse starts hoovering up all those microfiche archives of the national and then local newspapers, converting the images into searchable, indexed text and then putting them on the web.

    Get arrested for a bit of drunken disorderly as a teenager back in the 70’s? Wham, all of a sudden it is there on Google.

    So just because the newspapers were used as fish and chip wrappings doesn’t mean that that history won’t come back to haunt you at some stage. The digital panopticon is not only growing, it is expanding both its reach and depth back into the annals of history.