A right to be forgotten?

So we’re talking about the “right to be forgotten”. I am profoundly unconvinced about this. For a start, I can’t see how you can have an ethics of responsibility and at the same time a right to be forgotten. I am very interested in the past track record of people who want to exert power over me. That Boris Johnson used to claim that renationalising Railtrack was as bad as Robert Mugabe is, I think, relevant information to anyone who might have to vote for or against him. Similarly, the public memory of archives is enormously important, especially to anyone who intends to commit journalism.

That said, we should take petty tyranny, the abuse of private power, seriously too. We should take it seriously, among other things, because it is so common and it tends to be exercised in the same direction as all the other privileges in society. Having posted an embarrassing photo on Facebook should not actually be a bar to employment. Obviously, we’re living in a transitional era here – in the future, everyone will have an embarrassing Internet past, and therefore it will be unremarkable. The trouble is what happens in the meantime.

These two points are obviously in tension, if not contradiction. What I would like would be not so much a right to be forgotten, as a duty of tolerance, a right to be different or perhaps more importantly, a right to be wrong. Wrongness comes to us all. If you are never wrong, it suggests that you’re in denial, or that your ideas are simply uninteresting. And very often, being wrong is confused with just being unpopular.

But then, Harrowell, you’ve been very harsh on all sorts of people yourself. This is true, but I would claim that I’ve picked issues that are important and targets who can look after themselves.

To sum up, I would say that the notion of a right to be forgotten is worrying because we want it. This implies that we are scared of private bullying, and policed by elite consensus.

Beyond that, I am much more interested in the private use of public information, the deep-web stockpiles of ad-targeting metadata, which are worrying precisely because they are not directly observable. Then again, you have as much right to demand that you disappear from my notebook as from my mind.

2 thoughts on “A right to be forgotten?

  1. Hello Alex,

    I think right to be forgotten is more than just the ability to erase your personal embarrassing past on the internet. As commissioner Reding pointed out that one of the key provisions of the right to be forgotten is that “If an individual no longer wants his personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system.”

    This is important to me.

    Last month I wanted to close “delete” my evernote account because of the security breach at evernote. But it turns out evernote does not let you delete your account. You can disable the account, but not delete. That means that evernote will store my account info for ever, and possibly the deleted notes in some archived manner.

    Another example is Netflix. Even if you delete your account, it retains all your profile, preferences, payment details and any other associated information with your account forever. There is no way to get that deleted.

    The “right to be forgotten” will help me in getting this situation remedied by forcing the service provider to delete my information once there is no longer a legitimate reason to keep it.


  2. Saqib,

    What you say is important, but I fear that may not be the extent of the problem. Even if Netflix does keep your information, what would happen if they never post it? Certainly the information can still be stolen from Netflix or sold by Netflix to the highest commercial bidder, but existing laws already cover those and in a manner much more likely to address these problems.

    My understanding of this “right to be forgotten” is that the information should disappear from the public. But the internet is a public domain, and the burden of keeping information private should fall on the user to keep that information private. There is a difference between giving your information to a private entity to buy a movie and publishing information in a public forum so that the world can see it. The former is entitled to privacy but the latter is not. This “right” makes no such distinction. http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2013/05/02