Right to be Forgotten

Time heals all wounds, memory fades, forgive and forget… not anymore. On the internet nothing fades and everything is remembered.  Search engines store our searches. Social networks store our updates. Mobiles store our phone logs. We live in a world where it is cheaper and easier to store rather than delete data.   

For parents, our digital profile is from content  posted as adults. For children, their identity will include every silly post, bad photo and stupid mistake posted as a kid. Every crazy middle school thought or action could follow them into adulthood. Trying to coach them to think and post as their future 30-year-old self seems unfair and impossible. Kids should be able to post as a 12-year-old and leave behind their youthful identity.   

The European Union is trying to allow people to shed their youthful indiscretions by creating the “right to be forgotten.”  The “right to be forgotten” would give users the power to tell websites to permanently delete all personal data held about them. Currently, this right is being tested in Spain.  

Spain’s Data Protection Agency ordered Google to remove links to material on about 90 people. The information was published years or even decades ago but is publicly available via simple searches. Google decided to challenge the orders and appealed five cases so far to the National Court. The court’s decision should appear in a few months. 

In the U.S., several scholars have offered their own solutions for digital forgetting. Jonathan Zittrain, in his book the Future of Internet, advocates for the ability of individuals to declare personal reputation bankruptcy. Zittrain writes that this choice would allow people “to deemphasize if not entirely delete older information that has been generated about them by and through various systems: political preferences, activities, youthful likes and dislikes.” On the technology side, in the book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Viktor Nayer-Schönberger proposes adding a built-in expiration date to data. Before posting, users could be prompted to select an expiration date. He imagines a world in which digital-storage devices could be programmed to delete photos or blog posts or other data that has reached its expiration date.

The problem with all of these proposals is how to address downloaded information. In order to truly forget, the copies of the original data must be eliminated.  Tracking down every copy is an arduous task. In this case, instead of deleting Zittrain suggests contextualization.  Contextualization allows users to add information. The new information links to the original post or photo online allowing the person to add their own explanation. Instead of limiting information, this solution relies on adding more data.

Some companies are offering services to create digital forgetting. The book, Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier, offers a guide to how to eliminate or mask negative information. The authors, Michael Fertik and Dave Thompson who work for Reputation.com offer some practical information on how to remove, contextualize or drown out data. People looking to digitally forget should check out  Wild West 2.0

The right to be forgotten needs to be balanced with the freedom of speech and the need for an informed public. However children should be able to explore thoughts and ideas without being forever defined by them. Although my middle school years shaped who am I, I am in not limited by them or forced to revisit them. As technology records every place visited, every text sent and every search conducted, limits need to be placed on data retention to allow children the ability to reinvent themselves and shed their youthful identities.

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