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

So going back to discussing the book I’m reading without naming the book I’m reading. (I know — I’m annoying!  But as I said, email me if you want the name of the book before I’m ready to tie all of these questions to the book itself.)  Yesterday, we were talking about the idea of Internet entities or impersonal organizations “forgetting” us in the sense of having the ability to remove an account or information from the Internet.  I’ve been going in circles with this.

On one hand, the inability to remove the account or data is clearly within the terms of service, therefore, it’s user beware.  On the other hand, terms of service change.  When I first signed up for some of my accounts, I felt comfortable with the TOS.  Then the TOS changed.  Now I don’t feel comfortable with certain sites.  But removing my account is impossible.  Sure, I can delete the account, but all that does is limit my access and your access to my data.  It’s essentially like locking a stranger in my house.  Sure, other people can’t get into my house with the door locked, but I also can’t get into my house, and there is a stranger inside, rifling through my stuff.  When you look at it that way, deleting an account under those conditions doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So now there is another layer we need to discuss.

Sometimes people don’t choose to place their information on the Internet.  Sometimes, even if they didn’t open an account or post the information online, they get dragged onto the Internet.  There is always the chance that people could upload information or images about you, as was the case in the EU.  Should you be able to remove that information — be “forgotten,” so to speak?

So let’s spiral down into the question a little deeper, away from the powers that be — such as Facebook — and closer to the actions of individuals.


Image: Jlhopgood via Flickr

Let’s say that someone posted an embarrassing picture of you.  Your husband snaps a picture of you in mid-sneeze and uploads it to Facebook with the caption, “achoo!”  You should be able to have it removed, right?  I guess I’m starting with an assumption that no one is shaking their head right now and saying, “I may not love it, but that puppy is staying in place.”

We’re all on the same page with this, right?  We’d want the ability to remove an unflattering picture of ourselves that someone else uploads.

Then why did Buzzfeed refuse to remove Beyonce’s picture when asked by her publicist, and why did this become a major news story in 2013 rather than just have the images disappear?  Instead, the unflattering pictures were turned into a meme and spread even faster across the Internet where they are now so scattered that removing them entirely would be next to impossible.   And the media mocked Beyonce’s publicist for having the audacity to try to remove images.  People — again — decried this as Internet censorship.  That Beyonce was trying to rewrite reality by removing these online images.

Doesn’t Beyonce have the same rights as a private citizen?  I mean, yes, she’s a performer in public, but technically, a librarian also conducts her profession in a public space, unlike a school teacher, who works in a private space.  We know that it wouldn’t be cool to take and post grotesque pictures of a librarian, and yet it’s fair game to do so to a singer?  I don’t know.  That doesn’t sit right with me.  Rights aren’t a pu-pu platter.  We can’t say one job is public and the other is not when both are conducted in public spaces.

So if it’s okay to take pictures of Beyonce if we pass her on the street — and we sort of have that social contract that we can document our encounter with a public figure by snapping a picture — why is it not okay to start snapping pictures of my librarian when I go to return a book?  Because it’s not okay with the librarian.  And it is okay with Beyonce, even when she’s not in the middle of doing her job by performing.  Like when she’s enjoying down time with her family.  And by “okay” I don’t mean that it’s actually okay.  I just mean that paparazzi aside, I think most people wouldn’t think twice of snapping a picture of a celebrity without asking, but we do think twice about snapping a picture of a librarian without her permission.

And let’s just say that we did snap a picture of a librarian as we handed her our book, and her mouth was hanging open and her eyes were rolled back in her head because we caught her mid-sneeze.  We — for the most part — wouldn’t upload a clearly unflattering picture of a private citizen, but it’s clear from the Beyonce shots that we would if the person is a public figure…

We start going down a rabbit hole of what is private and what is public.  And who is a private citizen and who is public figure.  Are public figures ever private citizens when it comes to social media?  And social media, along with reality television, has blurred that line so much that it now isn’t clear where being a public figure starts and stops.  Is a contestant on the Bachelor a public figure?  Is a blogger a public figure?  Only if she has a certain amount of page views?  What about the Twitterati?  Facebook famous?

All I know is that the speed, agility, and anonymity of social media makes it very difficult to pull back your existence online once it gets started.  And you may not be the person who gets your own online existence started.


I’m always shocked when I go on Facebook to seek out an old friend and I can’t find them.  I’ve been searching for one old college friend for years.  There are exactly three places he appears online.  He has a LinkedIn account.  He has a freestanding website where he has posted his resume.  And he has a property listing in his name.  No Facebook.  No Twitter.  No blog.  No Instagram.  At least, none under his real name.

Which is sort of the point, right?  We can be anonymous online.  He could be on Facebook and Twitter.  He could have a blog and post pictures to Instagram; all under a fake name.  And unless he told me about them, I wouldn’t necessarily find them without a lot of intense sleuth work.

There are dozens of reasons why someone would want to blog anonymously or go on social media under an assumed name, very few of them nefarious in nature.  One thing social media can do is provide you with a break from the past.  My college friend — let’s call him John Smith — doesn’t want to be found, and therefore, he can’t be found.  I mean, yes, he can be found in the sense that I wrote him via the email address he provided on his resume and we’re back in touch.  But, you know, you can be forgotten on the Internet if you try hard enough; forgotten by people who knew you in the face-to-face world as you disappear into the anonymity of the Web.  Until people remove that right.

Because there is nothing to stop me from creating a site called Where is John Smith, and post pictures of my old friend from college.  I could start a Facebook group asking people to help me in locating him.  I could tweet out memories of our college antics.  I have some fairly embarrassing pictures of John Smith, and the only thing stopping me from uploading them is human decency and a belief that even if I took those photos and own those photos, they aren’t my photos to upload.  It steps over a line I’m not willing to step over.  I may really really really want to find John Smith, but beyond asking mutual friends if they’ve been in touch with him, I would clearly be going against his wish to stay offline if I forcefully brought him online.

Even if I’m the fool and he is online under an assumed name, I would still be going against his wish to stay offline under his real name.  And that is legitimate too.

People rarely trespass and hurt feelings when they follow someone else’s lead.  But how many people actually think that long and hard when it comes to social media?  I know that I mess up all the time.  It is hard to be mindful of others 100% of the time, but the fact that the stakes are high on social media 100% of the time requires that we be mindful 100% of the time.  And it just can’t be humanly done.   Being mindful and careful is the antithesis of social media.  5000 tweets would stream by in the time it would take you to come to the conclusion of whether someone would want you to post about them online.  Social media doesn’t wait or slow down.

So where does this leave us?  With the thought that we can try to slip away from our present or our past, but social media is making it very very hard.

So I’ll wrap up this chunk of the discussion by asking how we determine who owns the right to be brought onto the Internet so we can be immortalized in a medium where nothing ever really disappears (even the things we think we delete).  Is it the picture takers who owns that moment in Beyonce’s life and the ability to upload it for all to see or is it Beyonce?  Is it John Smith who owns the right to remain off the Internet or is it my right to look for him?  How do we have our own fun on the Internet while not having it at the expense of others who would like to have control over whether or not they can slip through the online world, unseen?  Or, if not unseen, then at least not in an unflattering way.

And yes, I’m pausing the conversation again to discuss this, but we’re digging deeper in the next post.  I warned you that it was a rabbit hole, friends.


1 Mrs T (missohkay) { 06.09.14 at 12:28 pm }

I’m so glad to have someone to talk about this with! I will wait to pose the question I found the most interesting until I’m confident you’ve gotten that far in the book 🙂

2 a { 06.09.14 at 1:15 pm }

What’s funny to me is that you think you have control. You can control your own actions, and you can hope that other people consider your feelings more than their own. But there are no guarantees. I think, again, in terms of print media. You know the police blotter in your local newspaper? It lists people who are accused of crimes. Does it go back and note when charges are dropped or people are acquitted? Not usually. Public figure or not so public figure – there are few laws protecting your right to privacy. Most of them end once you venture outside your front door – real or virtual.

3 Mel { 06.09.14 at 1:18 pm }

Oh! I don’t think I have control. And that is what is so scary. I can choose whether or not I upload something, but I can’t control whether someone else does. I run into this all the time — people uploading things about me/the kids/etc that I would never upload. And even if they take it down, well, it’s still there, on the servers.

4 Life Breath Present { 06.09.14 at 2:42 pm }

Part of the reason I blog under a pseudonym relates to this idea here. Hun and I are pretty private people. Have either of us ever been online abd socialized in that way? Yes! In fact, we even met online. But, for new, especially now that Baby Boy is around, I believe we have a right and a duty to let private things be (somewhat) private. In sure this will become increasingly difficult over time and I may (or may not) make other choices one day in relation to my family’s privacy. At the same time though, I, personally, don’t think every single thing about my life, my family, or my choices always needs to be available to whomever whenever, for all of eternity.

So, do we accept this as part of life today, do we fight it, or do we ignore it not fully accepting or fighting??

5 GeekChic { 06.09.14 at 7:54 pm }

I’m not on any social media quite deliberately. If you look for me on the internet you will only find information that is more than 10 years out of date (which suits me fine as it leads people in the wrong direction). I have friends that are on social media that keep me off of it (they untag me in the very few photos of me that exist and redirect conversations about me).

I have no illusions that control is total but I’m also not under the illusion that there is nothing that can be done. I have found that the people that most loudly proclaim that privacy doesn’t exist or who sneer at my (or others’) efforts to maintain privacy either have an axe to grind or an agenda around subverting privacy.

6 V { 06.10.14 at 6:38 am }

I try to keep my real name off the web. I’m a bit like your John. I wish I felt safe to post some pictures for family somewhere, but scared about copyright/tagging/whatever.
Even though my blog is not under my name AND not on Google list I still don’t dare to discuss some things for fear of where it might end up one day. Even though it might be relevant to living life with/after IF.
So uhm, your pictures and stories are safe with me.
(And again you have given me reason to not even think about the social media)

7 andy { 06.10.14 at 1:13 pm }

Interesting… when I was doing a photo a day challenge, I would take pictures of strangers, in public places, without asking their permission and post them on line. Now you have me rethinking that…….

8 Battynurse { 06.25.14 at 2:59 am }

Interesting. So many are struggling with this and there have been plenty who have had their life drastically altered by something they posted online. I know I’ve worried or at least wondered about stuff I’ve posted. I took my blog PWP a while back when I had a job interview not necessarily because any of it was bad but seriously my employer or future employer does not need to read about fertility struggles. I also am trying to be more conscious of what I post on FB. Mostly to do with work.

9 Justine { 07.06.14 at 5:39 pm }

So … the public/private distinction … it’s a sticky one for lots of reasons. I think I’ve written about this before, when I talked about Paula Deen and her comments on race, but it seems to me that we hold public figures to a higher standard, and we hold them accountable for everything they do … even in “private” settings that have been captured to a public space (by intruding paparazzi). Is that fair? No. But on the other hand, they are role models for lots of people.

I don’t know … celebrities and public figures seem to give up certain rights to their own content. I think the only thing we can do is be as sensitive as possible to the stories of other people, to know that we can’t tell their stories as they do. Like most of us do when we post about our kids. Unfortunately, I suspect that’s a lot to ask of a public that tends to make quick (and thoughtless) decisions that it regrets later.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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