For those who have felt the pang of regret weeks, months, or even years after posting something online they wish they hadn’t — there could be hope in sight.
- While information can sometimes be hard to delete from the internet, search engines can prevent it from appearing in search results on request
- The measures have effectively been in place in Europe since 2014
- But there are currently no provisions in Australian law for individuals to remove general content from a Google search
That embarrassing post, cringe-worthy photo, or even something posted by someone else, could soon be scrubbed from Google searches under new measures proposed to mimic European laws.
It is known as the “right to be forgotten”, and tech giants have the means to make it possible.
Queensland University of Technology Associate Professor in Digital Communication, Dan Angus, said while information could sometimes be hard to delete from the internet, search engines could prevent it from appearing in search results on request.
“Google for example, can choose to remove a connection within their search rankings, so they can actually bury a search result so it wouldn’t come up on a front page,” Associate Professor Angus said.
“This could be geographic specific as well — Google could choose to modify the ranking of search results, depending on where you’re making that search request from.
“Those pages are not Google’s pages, they exist somewhere else, hosted on some other sever online — it’s a referral service.
“We’re talking about Google removing information — it’s just removing a link from its search results to a resource that is found online — it has no authority over that information.”
The measures have effectively been in place in Europe since 2014.
Right to be forgotten aimed at reducing harassment
The idea to introduce similar laws in Australia was flagged by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk at a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting late last year and agreed to in principle by the Prime Minister.
A more detailed draft of the proposal is expected to be submitted at the next COAG meeting.
Ms Palaszczuk told ABC News a national approach to the laws would play a part in reducing cyberbullying and harassment.
“I think it is timely to consider this issue, with the advancements in digital technology and the significant impacts cyberbullying has on our youth,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
A patchwork of legislation currently protecting us
While the internet can be a wild place, it is not beyond the reach of law.
University of Queensland lecturer in social media and the law, Dr Alan Davidson, said there were already a variety of measures protecting Australians online.
“We have extensive privacy laws to protect the collection of information — how that is used and how that is stored,” Dr Davidson said.
“There are also some criminal provisions about spent convictions, so that if you’ve committed an offence and been jailed for less than 30 months and it’s more than 10 years old, you can effectively legally state that it didn’t exist under most circumstances.
“So that’s a possibility of saying we already have a right to be forgotten in relation to spent convictions.”
Defamation laws are another protection mechanism, as are laws in Queensland that impose jail time for anyone sharing intimate photos without consent.
But Dr Davidson said there are currently no provisions for individuals to remove general content from a Google search.
“We have no right at the moment to say ‘delete that information if you’re not keeping it for any good purpose’,” he said.
“At the moment we only have the right to maintain that it’s correct — the proposal is that we have the right for it to be removed.”
Opening the door to censorship
Associate Professor Angus said the concept had already divided opinions about where this type of legislation could lead.
“The one big thing that a lot of people are talking about is the idea of the spectre of censorship,” he said.
“We can frame this idea of digital takedowns around things like taking down personal identifying information if someone doesn’t want it online, things that could save someone from losing face — genuine takedowns that could cause significant distress to someone or reveal intellectual property in some way.
“But the idea of how far this goes and does this mean we end up with this regime of globalised censorship or such, is a significant concern for some people.”