A Right to Forget?

The Internet, like an elephant, never forgets. Unfortunately, it also never forgives, as witnessed by the case of Stacy Snyder, a 25 year-old former student at Millersville University School of Education in Pennsylvania, who wanted to become a teacher. Until the day she went to a party and had her picture taken drinking from a plastic beaker and wearing a pirate hat. The picture found its way onto MySpace, where it was seen by a professor who thought it decidedly unfunny. In fact, he was so incensed that he informed the school authorities who refused to grant the young woman the diploma she had earned, stating that her conduct was “unprofessional” and that she had, albeit indirectly, been encouraging young people to drink. Stacy went to court, arguing that the school had infringed on her right of free speech under the First Amendment, but a federal judge threw her case out.

All this happened back in 2008, but it is quoted at length in Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s book „Delete: The Virtue if Forgetting in the Digital Age“, and it provides an extreme example of how rash behavior can come back to haunt you in the Digital Age. The author pontificates at length about the need for parents to teach their kids to behave responsibly when online (as if the cyber kids are going to listen to old fuddy-duddies like us).

However, the book becomes more interesting when Mayer-Schonberger starts to talk about the basic right to informational self-determination, quoting human rights activists who are calling for legislators to force social networks like Facebook and MySpace to give their users the ability to delete things that they put online or that contain personal information about them. According to a study by the University of California, Berkley, 88 percent of Americans between 18 and 22 support such demands. 62 percent would like someone to force online operators to reveal what information about them they have stored.

Another idea Mayer-Schonberger discusses is the concept of a “digital expiration date”; a technical system that would automatically erase personal data after a certain time. He doesn’t go into any detail about just how long this digital half-life period should be, but assumes that the experts will sort out details like that.

Of course, he realizes just how tricky the proposition would be. Even if lawmakers in individual countries were to pass legislation like that, nothing much would happen if web site owners moved their servers across the border. And while the European Union in their impenetrable bureaucratic wisdom might conceivably concoct such a scheme, would the U.S. follow suit, given the huge cultural differences on both sides of the Atlantic on privacy issues?

Besides, the whole idea goes against the Zeitgeist, as expressed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in an interview with TechCrunch, in which he defends the decision to switch the default settings on Facebook profiles to “public”, stating that Facebook was simply reflecting the changes in society. “We decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it”,Zuckerberg said.

So is the age of privacy really over? Will we just have to get used to walking around naked, like the king in his new clothes in the children’s’ fairytale? Or should we all be out there in the streets protesting and demanding better protection of our personal data? I guess that is a decision everyone will have to make for themselves. However, as a society, I think we need to think deeply about some of these questions, since we appear to be standing at an important crossroads. Decisions we take (or avoid) now will almost certainly come back to haunt us, like Stacy Snyder’s photograph.

Mayer-Schonberg raises an interesting point here when he talks about forgetting as a function in society that keeps the entire structure from flying apart. At least it gives the individual who have fulfilled their so-called “debt to society” a reasonably chance of proving that he or she has truly changed and can now be relied on to behave in a responsible way. In its latest edition, the “Economist” thumps the United States for being the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world (“Why America locks too many people up”). No other rich country, the editorial sarcastically remarks, is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free.

Combine these vindictive tendencies with the Internet as a perpetual pillory and you have a nightmare scenario that not even the staunchest friend of online openness and unlimited freedom of speech and information can really want. We need systems that can forgive – and forget.

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