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Erasing yourself from the net: the Right to Oblivion

OblivionRecent weeks have seen much debate over the French government’s proposed “Une Charte sur le Droit à l'Oubli”, which would grant the individual the right to ‘erase’ themselves from the internet upon their death. Melody Ayres-Griffiths looks at the benefits, side effects and downsides to this radical, evolving concept.

10 April 2011

@gonzo543 Wow, man, I got sooooo wasted last night. I woke up with some chick I don’t even know, and got out of there before she woke up. God I do stupid things when I get drunk.

@halfmat96 hey @gonzo543 Dude, you shouldn’t say shit like that on Twitter, dude. It’s like, forever, dude!

@gonzo543 no worries, @halfmat96, it’s in my will that they have to delete all of this shit when I’m dead, so history can go and fly a kite!

@halfmat96 cool @gonzo543 … I’m gonna check that shit out! Thanks!

People do stupid things. Then, in an inexplicable fit of even further ineptitude, they then proceed to talk about, post pictures of, and distribute video of these stupid things on the internet.

Luckily, in the 1990s and even into the early 2000s, you could take reasonable steps to reverse your internet indiscretions once you came to your senses (with, perhaps, the exception of – but you needed to post your silliness on your own personal website to put yourself in that unfortunate position.) I digress.

Happily, if you posted on the Facebooks and Twitters of the day (such as LiveJournal) you could be fairly confident that you could delete your now-unwanted post, and nothing further would ever come of it – unless one of your not-so-friendly ‘friends’ decided to archive it for posterity themselves, so they could hammer you mercilessly over the head for the remainder of your natural life, but once again, I digress.

Thankfully, that risk was typically low.

Not anymore. Now, if your Twitter feed is ‘public’ and not explicitly restricted to those who ‘follow’ you, your little rants and sad admissions will be, and have been archived by the US Library of Congress. Nothing says forever like the Library of Congress!

If you have a Facebook page, and you meet an unfortunate accident, that page, including all of your inane pictures of your cat in a reindeer costume, could be on the internet in-perpetuity – and although you may have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, you can be fairly confident that the world will remember you far more for @walter519 I just want to go on the record and say that John Doe is a real son of a… rather than your world-renown best-selling novel.

After all, popular fiction is present today; amusing morsels of slander and libel are present forever. Not comforting, but sadly true.

So, out of this unsettling reality came an idea. What if, you could leave the ‘real-world’ remnants of your life behind when you died – your novels, your professional accomplishments, your public achievements – but your personal ‘contributions’ to the social-side of the internet would be erased forever, much in the same way society has past enforced a taboo on ‘speaking ill of the dead’ (de mortuis nil nisi bonum).

Perhaps you might leave a Wikipedia page as a digital epitaph, but that would be the sum-total of your post-mortem ‘personal’ on-line presence. Everything else would be consigned to the silicone dustbin.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with that? I just need to direct the executor of my estate to delete my Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress and whatever other accounts I have, and that will do the job nicely.

All of that nastiness from my younger, more foolish days will be completely forgotten, and I’ll be remembered as nothing other than the shining contributor to society I truly was.

Won’t I?

Sadly, it’s a far more complicated issue than you might think. Plenty of ‘services’ archive public data, for the purposes of data mining, demographic stereotyping, and advertisement targeting.

These organisations aren’t likely to give up your information easily – even if the executors of your estate can find them in the first place. In the ‘business’ of the internet, this data is so central to so many commercial mechanisms that it’s difficult to imagine what kind of draconian regulations one would need to develop and enforce to ensure that these databanks could be searched and your personal information removed. On the surface, it seems quite impractical.

Further, ‘casual’ use of your data, for search results, caches of web-pages and so forth, can exist – potentially in-perpetuity – within abandoned ‘temporary’ or ‘cache’ directories on the servers of search engines and other web and social media ‘crawlers’ such as popularity ranking sites.

Once again, the risk that something you said may come back to haunt you from these sorts of sources is – albeit low without intentional scrutiny from a third party – a definite possibility.

Then there comes the matter of other people’s use of your ‘communal’ data in their own spaces – such as a photograph of the two of you in a compromising position at a drunken orgy.

Who has the right to that photograph?  Can you reasonably demand that that photograph be removed upon your death when, after all, it doesn’t merely document only you, it documents an experience shared with another person as well – as embarrassing as that experience might have become once your hangover subsided. Do they not have the right to retain that ‘documentation’ if they do not feel similarly?

Whose rights would be proven superior here? It doesn’t take a great deal of foresight to see the legal profession having a field day with all sorts of scenarios such as this. An expensive one at that.

As if that wasn’t enough of a roadblock to thwart the dream of sanitising our worldly memory, it becomes even more complicated once you consider the matter of subsidiary discourse.

What if you said something that sparked off a debate amongst a number of people? Should that entire discussion be deleted, even though several others may have contributed their thoughts to it, simply because you initiated it?

Perhaps your initial post could be made anonymous, and any further references to you personally in the discussion that followed – but this would be awfully time-consuming, could ruin the context of the debate, and be fraught with legal challenges from other participants.

Who owns a discussion? The one who initiates it? Each and every contributor to it? The forum in which it takes place?

Difficult. Then becomes the mammoth task of determining what percentage of the Internet constitutes ‘personal’ space – that which could ethically be ‘cleansed’ – and what percentage makes up the ‘historical record’ – that is, factual sites such as news outlets and encyclopaedias that should not be disturbed.

I think it would be difficult for anyone to successfully argue that the ‘Tahoma Daily Herald’ must remove an article regarding her DUI conviction upon her death due to some nebulous ‘Right to Oblivion’ and, to be clear, that is not what we are talking about here – although some would like to see this debate extend that far.

To me, a criminal conviction constitutes a real-world fixture that, although unfortunate, should remain perpetually just as relevant as one’s achievements, as inconvenient as that may be.

As the old saying goes: If you don’t like it, don’t get caught.

Google’s Global Privacy Counsellor Peter Fleisher has written an excellent article on the subject that in part suggests that the internet could be made to ‘forget’, that data could ‘expire’ after a certain length of time, but this certainly could not apply to the ‘factual’ side of the Internet – you can’t ‘expire’ the Theory of Relativity, nor would you want to.

Peter also considers the notion that the internet be made to be more like the human brain – but discards it because “computers don’t work that way”. With all due respect to Mr. Fleisher, I wholeheartedly disagree here. I see this as a potential solution to the entire conundrum.

Perhaps the internet could be made to be more like the human brain. Think about how your mind works. You place priorities upon data – everybody does. Can you remember the face of the man who sold you a hot-dog at a stand in the park last Tuesday at noon? Probably not.

Can you remember the taste of the hot-dog? Probably, because it will have associated memories – hot-dogs past eaten. Can you remember tripping over a stone in the park whilst walking with your hot-dog and skinning your knee? I’d think that would be a fairly solid certainty.

Each one of these pieces of information has its own validity, its own ‘value’ with regards to its importance. The face of the man who sold you the hot-dog is unimportant – they were simply the mechanism by which you obtained your lunch, and there is no need to retain any information about said mechanism in any detail.

The hot-dog was pleasurable and tasty – this we will remember, because we may want to experience that pleasure again in future. Memories of pain naturally trump all others, since we are wired for self-preservation and pain is what reminds us not to do things that jeopardise our continuing existence.

The concepts of gravity and inertia that led to the pain slide in just under the pain itself, in the ‘this is why we’re in pain, and an understanding can prevent us from being in pain again’ category.

This is how children learn not to inadvertently kill themselves.

Back to the internet. Prioritising data, and ‘expiring’ trivial information after a certain period of time could prove to be the resolution to this debate. As we’ve already established, the “Right to Oblivion” as an individual right, with individual enforcement, is unreasonable and unenforceable.

There are far too many potential places for ‘your data’ to hide – archives, abandoned caches and so forth – and the legal issues surrounding communal, co-operatively produced data won’t be easily resolved any time soon.

If any data is going to be permanently removed from the human record, it will need to be done en masse, and apply to all of a certain class of data created by anybody.

In my opinion, this is not a terribly bad idea. Do we really need to retain trivial ‘tweets’ forever, as the Library of Congress would seek to do? Probably not, and in fact, most of us probably wouldn’t want to.

But, does Facebook constitute a de-facto “family record” that should remain untouched? Perhaps families need to take responsibility for storying their history themselves, as multitudes of previous generations have done, rather than rely on an internet service to do it for them – or, why should they if Facebook can do it for them? Isn’t the internet supposed to be about convenience?

In future, I imagine there will be much debate regarding just what constitutes a ‘trivial’ packet of data that can be easily forgotten, and what is ‘important’ and must be saved forever. Some will argue virtually everything on the internet has value, and others will say practically none of it does – especially silly little info-opinion pieces like this one. Cause and effect vs. affectless causes.

Who is right? Concerning this, you can be sure to hear a great deal of debate in the near future. There is much here for all of us to think about and discuss.

What do you think?

Melody Ayres-Griffiths is associate editor at The Scavenger.

Image: Melody Ayres-Griffiths



0 #1 Andrew McNicol 2011-04-11 20:07
Apart from the technical impossibility of removing one's personal contribution to the Internet, which you cover quite well, there is also other potential social phenomena, similar to the Streisand effect, to consider. If many people wanted to erase their data footprint, many others might consider taking it upon themselves to ensure those people are not successful, believing people should be held accountable for their actions, because it's funny, or simply because they have concerns, like you, about the negative effects such things could have on productive social discourse.

This reminds me of the suggestion, from a while back now, and from an important figure at Google no less, that people should change their names when they turn eighteen or so in order to distance themselves from the 'online youthful hijinks' of their teenage years. It just can't work, technically, and it wouldn't be that difficult for someone to discover your past identity and publicise it once you've written that great literary novel.

I see two possible solutions. The first one is technical: use services that give you control over your own information (eg. Diaspora ( rather than Facebook) and/or don't post information in public (or private!) places you may regret later. We need to be more smart with our information if we wish to have control over it later.

The other solution is social, and I feel does not receive enough public discussion: change our social understanding of information. Rather than hold people accountable for their past actions, recognise that other people, like us, change over time. We should put more emphasis on timestamps to construct context. The adoption of digital technology was relatively quick and we haven't made enough effort to alter our understanding of identity to compensate to the new modes of social interaction it enables. I should see that, had you written something ten years ago that I disagree with, you are a different person now and it is quite possible that your opinions have changed. Comments you made last week hold more weight. I should as open-minded about others based on the traces of their past selves as I would want them to be about me.

In short, I don't like the idea of people opting out after they die. Their actions are of great historical importance. Besides, it's both technically unfeasible and very unlikely that social services you have willfully given your data to (and who often legally 'own' it) would simply remove all traces from their systems just because it has been requested. It would be a better use of our time to discuss how we can evolve as a social species to adapt to the new technological landscape we have found ourselves in.

You're totally right, though; we will certainly hear more debate on this in the near future!

Great article, Melody!

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