In a column at TechCrunch, former YouTube executive Hunter Walk discusses the issue of old actions coming back to haunt individuals via search engine results. Whether it’s goofy photos on social-networking sites or more serious actions, technology can make permanent these actions. Walk writes:
Search engines have long memories. I think about this whenever I read new coverage of some immoral, misanthropic or illegal act. […] Years from now it’s possible, even likely, that when the perpetrators’ names are Googled, these histories will be what surfaces first for them. An employer, a girlfriend or boyfriend, or a neighbor will find out about what they once did years ago. Whatever the context, their past will be very hard to escape.
“Good,” you might say. And I largely agree, although Google’s recall impacts folks who weren’t criminal or stupid in their activities, maybe just youthful or a victim themselves. Star Wars Kid anyone?
So what are the broader implications? Will people actually show more self-restraint in their behavior since the cost is higher? Should search engines more aggressively expire results associated with nonpublic figures in order to give them a fighting chance of showing a different side of themselves to the world? Will someone with a scarlet letter in their past actually be inspired to achieve great things in their life (or at least become prolific online contributors) as an attempt to push their previous indiscretions down to page two of results? […]
One fascinating implication could be a Wikipedia-style effort where identity vigilantes try to connect people who have committed nefarious acts with their new names. Sort of an asshole lookup table. Tools such as image recognition could match old and new pictures of people despite them residing on different social network profiles. Software that matches voice or patterns in written text could crawl the web for exact matches with different authorship. This “Never Forget” group might start off with a victim’s rights bent, but how would governments react to this sort of a distributed effort?