Friday, February 6, 2015

The Fastest Gun in the West

There’s an episode of The Rifleman TV western in which a newspaper reporter files a story for the newspapers back East about a man he calls “the fastest gun in the West.” As a result of the publicity from the news article, a young gunslinger comes to town to challenge “the fastest gun” to a gunfight so he can claim the title and prestige that accompanies it. The young gunslinger outdraws and kills his older opponent. Our protagonist, played by Chuck Connors, tells his young son that he holds the writer responsible for the death his story led to. His son counters, “But why? Wasn't everything in his story true?” Connors explains, yes everything was true but the writer left out one important detail at the end: all of the events he wrote about took place 20 years earlier. The so-called “fastest gun in the West” of 20 years past hadn't picked up a gun since and was now a farmer. “The facts were true then,” Connors explains, “but not now. Today, he was an old farmer, who last held the gun before the man who killed him had been born.”

Can truth change? What was true in the past may not be true in the present. Information must be read in context. The problem with the World Wide Web is that information is searchable and retrievable but without proper context. It’s one thing to read an undated online restaurant review about a wonderful eatery only to discover when you arrive that it closed two years ago. But it’s an entirely more serious matter when the information posted affects an individual’s reputation and remains online forever, resurrected by search engines with no context to show if the veracity of the factual account has been altered by the passage of time.

Things change. A web post is a snapshot of a moment in time, but life is a filmstrip, not a single frame. An article about someone’s arrest for a heinous crime can destroy a person’s reputation. The Internet allows such an article to be continually resurrected as if it were a brand-new story, inconveniently neglecting to note that subsequently the individual had been completely exonerated.

Eight months ago, the European Union Court of Justice established “The Right to be Forgotten” requiring search engines, upon request, to remove content that is “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant”. It’s a long overdue privacy notion that makes sense. An example occurred last week, when a Spanish court ordered Google to remove a link to information about a debtor because the 1998 notice contained outdated information. What was true in the past may create a false inference when read out of context years or decades later. In the age of the Internet, “The Right to be Forgotten” is an essential privacy right that the U.S. should also adopt. The fastest gun in the West should be allowed to rest in peace in his later years without having to R.I.P. in Boot Hill.

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