War of Ideas

The ‘right to be forgotten’

The ‘right to be forgotten’

Oxford Internet governance Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues that it’s time for data on the Internet to have a legally mandated expiration date

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."

Digital memories, he said, are very different to analogue, photographic ones. "Photos, whether blurry or not, still leave a lot of room for interpretation, unlike, say, a high-definition video, where there’s no escaping everything you said and did."

Mayer-Schönberger, who advises companies, governments and international organisations on the societal effects of the use of data, advocates an "expiration date" (a little like a supermarket use-by date) for all data so that it can be deleted once it has been used for its primary purpose. "Otherwise companies and governments will hold on to it for ever."

The Guardian  is running a series on the topic, which seems to have gained a great deal of political traction in Europe, with "EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, heralding the prospect of serious fines for companies that refuse to honour requests from customers to erase personal data."

The topic is starting to appear in courts as well. Last year, the owner of a Spanish camping ground unsuccessfully sued Google to "prevent the search engine from displaying gruesome images of charred bodies from a deadly gas explosion in the late 1970s" when you searched its name.

I think it’s reasonable for Facebook users should be allowed to control what data the site maintains about them, but I’m not really sure how this could be fairly implemented for Google results. The gas explosion photos might be unfair to the Spanish company, but what about an oil company that wanted to remove information about a past spill?

More media is moving online, and digital records will increasingly be the only ones available. If a politicians made racist comments in a newsletter in the 1980s, the record has hung around for future journalists to discover. Should they be allowed to disappear just because they’re written on a blog?

Responding to the objection that Google’s backups will make full deletion impossible, Mayer-Schönberger says "But if you can be deleted from Google’s database, ie if you carry out a search on yourself and it no longer shows up , it might be in Google’s back-up, but if 99% of the population don’t have access to it you have effectively been deleted," he said.

Under this scenario, Google would have access to information that 99 percent of the population didn’t. Right to be forgotten laws may aim to empower users, but it seems to me that they would leave the search engines with the power in the relationship.