Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Right to be Forgotten

            Imagine that there is a high school-aged girl at a party. Her friends convince her to have some punch and food, and, not wanting to disappoint, the girl agrees. Unbeknownst to her, however, the drink had been spiked with alcohol and the food laced with drugs. After a few hours later of eating, drinking, and partying, the girl collapses on the floor in a pool of vomit. Her friends then immortalize the scene with a photo that they upload to social media. They caption the image: “What happens when you Party too much?”

            Later, when the girl goes to apply for college, some of her applications are denied on the basis of the photo the admissions officers discovered online. The girl tries to have the image removed, but because it is not hers (even though it is of her), and because it displays true content, she is unable to have it deleted or suppressed. The image will invariably follower her around for the rest of her life, sealed in the time capsule that is the internet.

            Data permanence, or the idea that personal information online never goes away, is an injustice. It both deprives the victim of a chance to rehabilitate themselves and their reputation, and it perpetrates an unending cycle of punishment against them. It also impedes the opportunity to heal through forgiveness.

            When information is permanent it hinders society’s collective capacity to forgive. Consider, when a friend says something offensive, the passage of time gradually allows the memory to fade, making it easier to forgive the friend for their remark. Yet, when every memory is still fresh, still readily accessible, still clear and precise, it is much more difficult to move beyond such indiscretions and to reconcile. The wound is still open, so to speak.

The same principle is true of our online interactions. Because our online interactions are engraved in stone—they are inerasable, researchable, and clear as the first day they were posted—they are a constant irritant in that wound. They never allow forgetting to happen, and thus stymie efforts at forgiveness. Where forgiveness has not happened, where the memories of past wrongs are fresh, neither the victim nor perpetrator can move on. They are trapped in those past memories, and incarcerated in the violent feelings, thoughts, and actions of those prior moments.

Data permanence hinders progress and healing in other ways as well. It denies, for example, the victim of the right to rehabilitate their reputation. It normal life, when someone does something wrong, they are punished for their transgressions, but as those transgressions fade into the mists of time, victims have a chance to redefine themselves. Humanity’s imperfect memory gives them a fresh slate with which to repair their image. But, when memory is perfect, as digital memory is, it actively inhibits a victim’s capacity to revive their good name, because all of their past wrongs are just a few, easy clicks away. People have no chance to grow as individuals. They are perpetually victimized by their online breadcrumbs.

Those breadcrumbs and posts, however trivial they might seem, outlive their welcome. What might once have been a small error can never been forgotten and can always be researched. There is no sense of proportionality in the system in the sense that a mistake does not just punish you in the moment, in can punish you every year of your life from that moment on. That one image of that girl passed out will be accessible when she is 40, when she is 50, when she is 60, until the day she dies. Employers will always be able to find it, and many will use it to assess her, however unfair that may be. This total lack of equity in the scales of justice—that missteps can penalize people even after they have already paid in full for those mistakes—is categorically unfair and unreasonable.

The solution is to adopt the “Right to be Forgotten.” This is a right developed in the European courts that enables users to petition search engines to remove posts that are irrelevant or that are excessive for the goals of data processing. This would empower people like the girl to have links to the damaging photo removed, despite the photo not being untrue or her own property. As data permanence robs the victims of power, the right to be forgotten seeks to actively empower them, evening the scales and swinging them towards a fairer, more just balance.

Individuals have a role to play in combatting the problem as well. They can make a conscious effort to avoid posting or revealing compromising data about themselves online, and they can avoid posting that kind of information about others. Cultural shifts are important in fighting this problem, especially as it may be impossible to remove all links to all harmful posts. But justice demands that we at least try, because no one is due the kind of unending cudgel of a indiscrete post haunting and berating them for life.


Mayer-Shönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 2009. Print.

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