Once, we came of age under the shadow of something called a Permanent Record. Nobody ever actually saw one, but it was a scary thing, and as youngsters we understood we had to keep our own permanent records clean, since any stains on them could do lifelong damage.
Plainly, the idea of an authoritative, ineradicable ledger on individual behavior is a powerful one. Widespread too. You see it in everything from the divine Book of Life to the gift list kept by Santa, who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.
That permanent record meant somebody was paying attention, which was good, but it was also a brooding and oppressive background presence, since it enabled even trivial sins to curse our futures.
A good thing it was largely mythic. Back then, actual record-keeping was spotty and forgetful, and technology had zero ability to corral the manifold traces that we leave as we make our way through life into some all-knowing compendium.
No longer. Welcome to the digital age. Its mighty search engines have spawned a virtual permanent record for millions of individuals. It’s updated constantly, lasts forever, and is in fulltime public view.
What gets in it and with what prominence—those are mysteries, depending on the alchemy of particular search engines. Generally, it seems, they suck up most anything about someone that was published or resides in Internet-accessible public records. (The search engines don’t scour social media like Twitter and Facebook, yet.)
That means the fraternity house dustup that led to a sleepover in jail, or the rude remark at a political rally, or any of a thousand missteps and embarrassments that in a pre-modern age would have faded into oblivion—the debris of what Justice John Paul Stevens called the “practical obscurity” we used to inhabit—remain vivid, alive and, potentially, toxic.
Hence the importance of last month’s ruling by Europe’s highest court. It authorizes people to demand that links to material that threatens their privacy be scrubbed from search results.
The case involves Google, the California-based colossus that handles roughly 90 percent of Europe’s Internet searches. It was brought by a Spaniard who challenged a link to a 1998 item in a Catalan newspaper about the auction of his home, which was repossessed to pay off debts he owed. He reasoned that the matter had been resolved ages ago and there was no reason people who googled