Do we have the right to forget the past, and to be forgotten?
That’s the key question in this article from The Guardian by Kate Connolly, which part of a larger series on internet privacy. Connolly talks with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance at Oxford Internet Institute, who describes himself as the “midwife” of the idea that people have the legal, moral, and technological right to be forgotten, especially as it relates to the internet’s memory.
In order to make decisions about the present and the future, Mayer-Schönberger claims, our brain necessarily forgets things, which allows us to think in the present:
Our brains reconstruct the past based on our present values. Take the diary you wrote 15 years ago, and you see how your values have changed. There is a cognitive dissonance between now and then. The brain reconstructs the memory and deletes certain things. It is how we construct ourselves as human beings, rather than flagellating ourselves about things we’ve done.
But digital memories will only remind us of the failures of our past, so that we have no ability to forget or reconstruct our past. Knowledge is based on forgetting. If we want to abstract things we need to forget the details to be able to see the forest and not the trees. If you have digital memories, you can only see the trees.
One of his ideas to combat the negative effects of the permanence of data is to implement an “expiration date” for all data — akin to the “Use By” date on perishable food items — so that it can be deleted once it has served its primary purpose. “Otherwise companies and governments will hold on to it for ever,” he claims.
A counter-argument for this right-to-be-forgotten strategy is that it could be impossible to implement due to the many back-ups that are made of the same data; if the data exists somewhere, then you’re technically not forgotten. But Mayer-Schönberger pushes back on this, saying even if Google has a back-up somewhere, if you search for the data and “99% of the population don’t have access to it you have effectively been deleted.”
What’s unclear about his “expiration date” idea is whether it would include a self-destructing mechanism embedded within the data, like how e-books rented from libraries disappear after a predetermined time period, or whether the data’s user could choose to ignore its “Delete By” date. If the data holders are not legally or technologically compelled or obligated in some way to delete the data permanently after an agreed upon time, then this “right to be forgotten” becomes a lot weaker.
As an aspiring archivist, tech enthusiast, and history buff, I can see where something like this could be detrimental to historians, information managers, and culture heritage caretakers. One of the Internet’s strengths is its ability to hold a vast amount of easily transmittable information, much more than any era before ours could, so to effectively neuter this ability would hinder present and future historians and archivists in their quest to accurately document the past. A historian studying late-1700s American history has only select diaries, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera of deteriorating quality from which to cull contextual information and interpret that time period for modern audiences. Researchers studying the present day, however, have millions of gigabytes of data available to them on the Internet – way too much information for even the Internet Archive or Library of Congress to adequately archive, let alone make sense of.
But as an individual, having the ability to regain a modicum of control over one’s own data is very appealing. Anyone who has ever posted a photo on Facebook they later regretted, or sent an email they wish they hadn’t, or wrote an inflammatory blog post years ago could see great value in data that can be, if not irreparably extirpated, then at least banished from digital civilization. This may lead to a less-complete record of our existence, but given how much more data we’re producing overall today than ever before we will not lack for records anytime soon.
We should all, I believe, have the right to the digital equivalent of burning a letter we don’t want living on in perpetuity, even though this idea runs counter to the impulses of our over-sharing and hyper-connected world. It is also anathema in archives: just think of all the information in that letter we’ve lost forever! I hear you, imaginary archivist, but, to return to Mayer-Schönberger’s analogy, even if a forest loses a tree — from natural death or manmade causes — it will still be a forest. And as Theodore Roosevelt, a great man of nature and of letters, said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mysteries, its melancholy and its charms.”
The Internet, like a forest, should allow for mystery. Otherwise, where’s the fun in the searching?