Like Elephants, Search Engines Never Forget

Editor’s note: Hunter Walk was most recently Director of Product Management at YouTube. Follow him on Twitter @hunterwalk.

Search engines have long memories. I think about this whenever I read new coverage of some immoral,  misanthropic or illegal act. The kids who tweeted racist statements about Obama on Election Day, the college student whose secret videotaping of his gay roommate helped lead to the young man’s suicide, the catfishing of Manti T’eo. 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? Or will services such as find an increasing B2C business where they can obscure the fact that, well, you were an idiot teenager? Maybe you’d even take out search ads on your name linking to pages that tell your side of the story or present a mea culpa.

For me the most interesting questions hearken back to a joke that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt made in 2010. Eric said each kid would get the chance to change their name upon reaching adulthood in order to give them a fresh start on the Internet. He wasn’t referring to outrunning truly heinous behavior, more just those beer-funnel pics from the kegger that might not look so funny during your job search.

Although Eric was mocked by some bloggers who thought he was actually proposing this as a solution to concerns about privacy, there’s more than a bit of truth in his quip. Not that Google would ship a “do-over” button, but that people will increasingly turn to legal name changes in order to effect this themselves.

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?

Sometimes in business ethics classes, they talk about the “front page test.” Would you be embarrassed if your behavior appeared on the front page of a newspaper? This notion is as antiquated as the reference to newspapers because we’re now in a world with a newspaper that’s accessible to all of the world and that never forgets. If that doesn’t encourage better behavior, well, you might want to query “common sense.”

[Image via Flickr]