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.