Random header image... Refresh for more!

Do We Have the Right to Be Forgotten? (Part One)

So I’m reading a book, and it is affecting me greatly.  I want to talk about the book without naming the book until I’m done talking about the book*.  Indulge me?  In the end, I’ll gather up all the posts that have been connected to the book, name the book, and then… uh… I’ll go and read something else.  Don’t worry; none of these posts will reveal any spoilers.

I’m aware that this is a little ass-backwards in the vein of book discussion.

But this book is unique in that it feels a bit like an optical illusion.  When I look at it from this angle, it makes total sense.  And when I look at it from that angle, it looks bat-shit irrational.  Well, which one is it?  Best idea in the world or worst idea in the world?  Because it can’t really be both at the same time.  Right?


I’m starting with a topic that additionally keep popping up like a weed online lately.  I saw two different posts in two different places in the same week, and this topic also bubbles up in my book.  Do we have the right to be forgotten?


Image: Jlhopgood via Flickr

Both posts riffed off of the same EU ruling that allowed search results (tying a man to a negative experience) to be removed from the Internet.  The man argued that constantly having his name tied publicly to the foreclosure of his house was a violation of his privacy.  The court agreed and ruled for the removal of the auction notice.

It makes sense.  I mean, anyone who could be financially affected by this man would have the foreclosure turn up in a privately conducted search, such as a bank researching a prospective client.  And the general public doesn’t need to know about a person’s foreclosure to make decisions in the same way that a person might want to know if they live next door to a child molester.  It could potentially socially affect the man if every time someone Googled his name, it popped up with that information — which, by the way, is now 16 years old.  It’s embarrassing, I guess.  And it’s information without context — you know about the foreclosure, but you don’t know the circumstances to bring him into foreclosure.  So… yes… makes sense to remove that sort of information from the Internet at someone’s request.


Of course, some groups are decrying it as Internet censorship.  That to delete anything from the Internet — any information — is an act of changing history, the conversation, the public record.  That makes sense too.  I mean, how do we determine what can be removed and what cannot?  What if President Clinton wanted his relationship with Monica Lewinsky to be stricken from the Internet?  Would we do that?  Their affair isn’t information the general public needs in order to make a decision.  Sort of like the foreclosure.  But… can you imagine removing something like that?  A piece of history?  And really, what if President Clinton wanted it removed and Monica Lewinsky wanted it up?  Whose desire to have the story removed or out there wins?

So… no… when you look at it that way, it doesn’t make sense to remove information from the Internet.

All of this ties in with this idea of whether or not we have the right to be forgotten.  We certainly have the right to be remembered; by belonging to any society, we participate in the right of public record keeping.  Our existence is noted and counted.  Our death is too.  Those are both legal entitlements which give us access to more legal entitlements.

But what about the right to be forgotten?  Do we have the right to erase the fact that we existed?  We obviously can’t force people to forget us — at least, not until we enter an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

But let’s start at the largest level — our relationship with companies, organizations, or agencies.

We already pointed out above an example where someone wanted to opt out of having an agency (or, I believe in this case the agency gave the information to a newspaper who produced an ad about the foreclosure) place their information online.  What about the other direction?  Should it be an individual right to close a social media account — for a person to tell a company that even if they put their information out there willingly, they would now like to remove it?

Were you aware that you give away this right with certain sites?  That spaces on the Internet, such as Facebook or WordPress or Blogger or LinkedIn or Evernote or Starbucks or Barnes and Noble… well, the list is long… specifically state in their terms of service that you cannot delete your account and remove its presence from their servers?  That once you set up an account, once you upload your first status message or your first picture, you lose control of that data.

Which isn’t a big deal if you look at it from one angle.  I mean, why would I care if something I say is on a server in some remote room… somewhere?  I don’t say very interesting things.  At least, they’re not very interesting or controversial in today’s society.  Based on what I know now, I feel comfortable with everything I say online.

But what about tomorrow?  Or the next day?

The world could change, and something that seems benign now could become anathema.  Twitter takes over the world and starts punishing all former Facebook users.  We quickly try to delete our accounts to save our lives but… WE CAN’T!  Or maybe it’s not even that outlandish a scenario.  Maybe I become famous later and someone digs up my past blatherings; things I thought would only be seen by my friends or things I thought I deleted upon second thought.  Yeah, when I look at it from that angle, I’d sort of like the ability to control my data.

If I have the right to sign up for an account and upload information, I’d like the ability to delete an account and remove my information.  I would like the right to be forgotten by Facebook and WordPress and Blogger, etc. even if I know that I cannot control being forgotten by actual human beings.  But in doing so, am I committing Internet censorship?  Am I trying to rewrite history?  Change the story?

This is getting too long, so I’ll end there and pick up this thread after you’ve gotten a chance to weigh in…

* I want to talk about the real world implications of the book without pulling in a discussion of the plotline and characters in this book.  Also, I haven’t finished it yet, so I would hate for someone to spoil any of the twists for me.  But if you’re dying to know the book before I get to the last post about it, email me and I’ll tell you.  Not a secret; I just want these questions that arise from the book rather than the book itself to be the focus.


1 KeAnne { 06.08.14 at 8:25 am }

Interesting topic, especially since most of recorded history, we have been striving NOT to be forgotten. And I am always struck when I read about conquerors and invaders who have obliterated cultures so that we know little or cultures we know existed but were unable to leave a record. Being forgotten is the cruelest fate I think. I think it might be difficult to come up with some sort of policy that allows certain things to be forgotten. Heaven knows politicians and celebrities would love that and history would not be useful if certain events could be expunged . Do you have a memory police or council who decides such matters? No, I think it is far better although messier for everything to be out there and preserved.

2 KeAnne { 06.08.14 at 8:30 am }

Interesting topic. It goes against the grain of human experience since we have been trying to be remembered for most of recorded history. One of the most powerful tools a conquering force has is the ability to erase you. Think of those cultures about whom we know little to nothing. I always feel so sad when I read about armies or dictators destroying significant cultural or historical items.

Who doesn’t have something they’d like to permanently erase, but that’s a tricky topic. What happens to history if certain events are expunged? And who would police such decisions? No, I think it is far better for everything to remain.

3 a { 06.08.14 at 9:49 am }

There is a certain amount of information that becomes public record…like foreclosures, for instance. The information gets published in newspapers. I realize that peole think newspapers are obsolete, but they retain a certain amount of history for us. And all copies can’t possibly be accounted for. So, I don’t really understand the EU ruling…except that maybe they’re still separating online news from print journalism.

In terms of other online content…well, if you willingly put up content, it should be with the understanding that anyone will be able to see it. Even if you have privacy settings. If an idea leaves your head in any form, some one else will potentially be privy to that idea. And there are no guarantees what that someone else will do with the idea.

And I want to know what book ypu’re reading!

4 Mel { 06.08.14 at 10:25 am }

But what about the fact that you can sign up for an online service and the TOS can say one thing, and then, once ensconced, it can update their TOS to say another? But to always have at the core that your account’s existence (even if you don’t upload anything) is permanent? Sometimes you need to be online for your job. I have to imagine anyone who works in communications now needs to be online, even if that wasn’t the case when they started their career.

5 Persnickety { 06.08.14 at 1:43 pm }

Big can of worms with this. I think we live in a world where a lot of our information is known by others, and kept on record, so that it is harder to change.

I am always fascinated by stories of women who passed as men to fight as soldiers, or just to live their lives. Or the fact that in the past people could escape their lives and build entirely new ones in a way that is very difficult now. We think of ourselves as living in a reasonably tolerant and open society, but we have a pretty major bias about being tied to our previous history.

In terms of being able to be forgotten, I think that there would be public interest test- is it in the public interest for the information to be available- for example I work in financial services, and you cannot work in certain roles if you are bankrupt. And even after that has passed, in many circumstances it would be important, as the roles are managing other people’s money on their behalf. But I don’t think that it would be relevant to know that the person was arrested in a protest regarding human rights when they were in university.

6 Mel { 06.08.14 at 1:57 pm }

I’m all for public records remaining public, but is there a difference between doing a background check on someone you are considering hiring and getting information (or, in this case, being a bank that can learn about the foreclosure before you give a loan) and having that information up on the Internet for your neighbours, co-workers, friends to know? I mean, yes, we need his foreclosure to be part of the public record, but I certainly don’t need to know about his foreclosure. And yet I can find out about his foreclosure or a whole host of other information about people that I technically don’t need to have yet pops up if I Google them.

7 Persnickety { 06.08.14 at 2:49 pm }

I think there is a difference.
Incidentally there is a big change right now in my industry whereby key persons and directors must have certain information disclosed on the website of the organization, including their salary. For my company it means my boss, and a some other managers, must have their wages disclosed. I had to go to two or three meetings to explain this, where the focus was “how do we avoid this?” and the answer was you can’t. It’s part of a general push to disclosure, but even once a director leaves, it has to stay up on the website for a number of years. But again, managing money on behalf of others.

It’s reasonable to expect that the bank has access to information about my financial history, but not my co-worker.

I think that it is reasonable to ensure a certain amount of identification on the net, but also know that anonymity and pseudonyms are important as well.

And as a history loving person, I often wish there was more information about people’s day to day lives.

8 Mrs T (missohkay) { 06.08.14 at 3:43 pm }

Ooh, I’m dying to know the book because it seems like it *could* be the same book I just read. (Or at least this post ties in neatly with it!)

9 Valery Valentina { 06.08.14 at 4:18 pm }

From what I understand about the EU ruling: the information does NOT get deleted from where it was originally published, it is just that Google doesn’t link to it, doesn’t show it in the search results.

10 Pepper { 06.09.14 at 8:35 am }

I suppose we don’t have the “right” if we agree to be a part of any of these services. We in effect give that up. Honestly, if I think about this too much, it really gets to me and I head in the direction of “off the grid” non-Internet living. But then I remember it’s too late. I’m already out there.

And I admit the curiosity is getting to me – what book are you reading?

11 andy { 06.09.14 at 9:45 am }

Those are some deep thoughts for a Monday morning. Even before the internet, our lives were somewhat documented… legal papers about the sale of properties, birth certificates, adoption certificates… it’s just now those documents are guaranteed to last longer then their previous paper and pen versions.

12 KeAnne { 06.09.14 at 10:07 am }

Tried to post twice yesterday and it didn’t go through. Ugh! It is interesting that this question is being asked since we have spent most of recorded history striving not to be forgotten. And destroying civilizations and all their artifacts so that it’s like they never existed is probably one of the worst things a conquering force can do.

Sure, it would be nice to be able to pick and choose what was accessible about us, but what happens to truth in that case? Would history have any meaning if some of the bits we were less proud of were scrubbed?

On the other hand, as a state employee, my salary is public record and searchable by my name and I HATE that. One of the big newspapers in the state maintains that database and advertises it. Do I think my neighbor has the right to know what I make simply because I work for the state? No, but I can also look up what everyone paid for their houses in my county.

13 KeAnne { 06.09.14 at 10:08 am }

Tried to post twice yesterday and it didn’t go through. Ugh! It is interesting that this question is being asked since we have spent most of recorded history striving not to be forgotten. And destroying civilizations and all their artifacts so that it’s like they never existed is probably one of the worst things a conquering force can do.

Sure, it would be nice to be able to pick and choose what was accessible about us, but what happens to truth in that case? Would history have any meaning if some of the bits we were less proud of were scrubbed?

On the other hand, as a state employee, my salary is public record and searchable by my name and I HATE that. One of the big newspapers in the state maintains that database and advertises it. Do I think my neighbor has the right to know what I make simply because I work for the state? No, but I can also look up what everyone paid for their houses in my county.

14 Heather { 06.09.14 at 10:16 am }

For me the divide is: Did I choose to put it on the internet or did someone else put it out there?
If I chose to put it out on the internet (Facebook, Twitter, Blog, etc) then it is totally unreasonable to think I will have total control over that information. Therefore, as someone suggested before, I don’t put up anything that I’m not afraid to tell or show people in person.
Information that I did not put out there, well, that’s where I get a little irritated and again, there is a divide.
Public record, fine. It is what it is, it’s not like my personal bank account balance is floating around in a searchable database for all the world to see. If I bought a house, put on an addition, had a foreclosure, etc. That’s always been public record, it’s just easier to get the information now. Heck, if I wanted to I could go down to the courthouse now and see when my great grandmother built their house and for how much.
It’s the information like my child’s picture being posted by some well meaning mom or dad or a neighbor getting upset over something I did and posting it on a website like ihatemyneighbor.com that bothers me the most. In those cases, I feel we should be able to delete what is out there.

15 deathstar { 06.09.14 at 11:13 am }

Mmmm, interesting. Considering I just spent a heck of a time trying to delete a WordPress blog I created in a fit of rage/despair with a title I soon regretted and it took me a few days to figure out how to get it renamed without deleting my first blog. It made me think of all the things that do get posted that are not true at all, but then you’d have to sue someone and that doesn’t necessarily stop images/content from being disseminated. Young people have killed themselves over things like that. Or suffered great humiliation for years…just ask Monica Lewinsky. Personally, years ago during the modem age, I found an explicit porn picture with a face that was a dead ringer to mine. What I do for a living (or non living as it turns out) is public record so my image could very well have been clipped out and photoshopped on someone else’s body. I found it rather amusing at the time. Had that image perpetuated, I might not have found it so amusing.

16 Mel { 06.09.14 at 11:18 am }

What does it say about me that I immediately clicked over to see if my neighbour had written about me on ihatemyneighbor.com?

17 Justine { 07.06.14 at 8:18 am }

Finally catching up … great post, and great conversation (and thanks for the link!). I think the important distinction is between information existing and being able to find it easily … yes, I think you should be able to close your account, but I don’t think you should be able to erase what was there. We tell students all the time about making careful choices about what they post, because it’s part of their history. Maybe Google should only be able to search pages with active links to them? So that the things not linked to shouldn’t appear, but if you were a friend with a link, you could still get there? I don’t want my information being found by millions of people, but I also think I should be responsible for what I put out there … (more when I read the others…)

18 Justine { 07.06.14 at 5:57 pm }

And update: maybe there should be some protected information we NEVER post online for public access (e.g. foreclosure)? Are there other categories like this? Or would it get too complicated to make distinctions?

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
The contents of this website are protected by applicable copyright laws. All rights are reserved by the author