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16 May 2014

The right to be forgotten

Who of us has never wanted to turn the clock back, to have the chance to undo something - that crazy decision or action that we have lived to regret ever since?

Following a decision by the European Court of Justice, it now appears we can. A Spanish citizen complained that 'googling' his name brought up newspaper articles from 1998 reporting how he sold his property to pay off debts. He argued that the matter had been resolved and was therefore irrelevant. The court concluded that people had the right to request information be removed if it appeared to be "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant".

Understandably, the reaction has been mixed. On the one side those who have fought to have references to some unsavoury incidents removed are celebrating. On the other, those campaigning for freedom of expression argue that this is nothing more than unjustifiable censorship. Don Pittis, on CBC News, blogged: "We should fight with tooth and claw to prevent any ministry of truth from deciding which entries should be snipped out and dropped down the memory hole."

I understand where he's coming from. The Daily Mail had 'everyday' matters in mind when it commented: "The edict will allow the likes of debtors , dodgy car dealers and workmen to censor a chequered past, since there will be no way of finding the information."

And on a larger scale, does it open the door for governments to rewrite history? I think back to Robin Williams' outstanding performance as army DJ, Adrian Cronauer, in 'Good Morning Vietnam', and the news that was never allowed to be read. And we've experienced, periodically, attempts at Holocaust denial.

But there must be a strong case supporting the opportunity, if not the right, to forget. The BBC website carried an article articulating several situations - young people's mistakes enshrined on a social media site, or those who have served a short prison sentence and whose punishment is deemed to have been spent. I think, too, of those in public life who may have changed their opinion on an important issue but are continually bashed over the head with what they said before, as if no one is ever allowed to change their mind.

In a day when one could be forgiven for thinking that good news isn't news, and that much of the media seems driven by a desire to dig up dirt, how many live in fear that - despite many years since they made a mistake - someone, somewhere, will unearth it, and their career will be finished?

Would I want all of my life played out on the front pages for the world to see? I doubt it. Would any of us? Further, what place has forgiveness in it all? At the heart of the Christian message come words like these from a songwriter, quite obviously struggling with his own failure:

"The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbour his anger for ever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us." Psalm 103:8-12 (NIV UK)

Of course there is legitimate fear that a law like this could be abused for sinister purposes, but I do think we need to become a more gracious society that knows when it really is appropriate to allow some things to be forgotten.

Stephen Cave is European executive director of Biblica. He lives in Belfast and is former director of Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland for 10 years.