Right to Be Forgotten: Forgiveness or Censorship

Meg Ambrose and Jill van Matre, two lawyers and privacy policy thinkers, hosted a conversation in which from the outset there was the ambition to answer some of the following questions:

  • Is forgiving and forgetting worth protecting in the digital age?
  • How does the Right to be Forgotten work in EU member countries?
  • Does the First Amendment prevent any possibility of a Right to be Forgotten in the US?
  • How does time change the value of information?
  • Can anything ever really be deleted from the Internet?

From the online summary of the session:

The digital age has eternalized information that was once fleeting, and the Right to be Forgotten has gained traction in the EU. A controversial aspect of these rights is that truthful, newsworthy information residing online may be removed after a certain amount of time in an attempt to make the information private again. Two compelling camps have arisen: Preservationists and Deletionists. Preservationists believe the web offers the most comprehensive history of humanity ever collected and feel a duty to protect digital legacies without censorship. Deletionists argue that the web must learn to forget in order to preserve vital societal values and that threats to the dignity and privacy of individuals will create an oppressive networked space.

The Starwars Kid: undeletable
The Starwars Kid: undeletable

They kicked off the conversation with the example of a girl in college who did somebody stupid which was posted on Facebook and surfaced 6 years later. We were also asked to remember our most embarassing moment and then imagine that being posted on the Internet and showing up as the first result on a search for your name. They then handed out a roadmap for the discussion (which I think some of the other discussion sessions could have used).

Forgetting is incredibly important to our emotional health. How human do we want our technologies to be? This becomes more important now that it is becoming harder to keep yourself out of the online context and are forced to live some of your civic life online. Digital life is also core to our expression rights. Somebody in the audience had a disability with his hands. He is now scared to post pictures of himself online being happy, because they might take his disability insurance away if he doesn’t look “disabled” enough.

In general the tone of the discussion seemed to be very pro right-to-forget (so deletionist). One German lady brought in the perspective of her press job. The press is very nervous about how this right will be used to censor the press.

My personal question on this topic relates to the ability to reinvent yourself. This will become much harder once everybody has something like a “Facebook timeline”. The assumption behind this seems to be that people don’t change and that identity is a constant concept. This semi-objective (it still is a subjective lens) digital history might become the single source of truth about who you are.

There are a lot of behaviours and social norms that are coming through that are helping us cope with this situation. There are also options to enforce law with forced technological solutions.