Why we need a right to be forgotten
The right to be forgotten should give us greater control over the data we post about ourselves online, writes Sebastian Huempfer.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The internet does not forget. Because data storage has become incredibly cheap and simple, everything you say, do, like or share online can easily be remembered, and sometimes it is. In February 2011, Twitter came under fire for hoarding iPhone address book data. The microblog is not alone. Facebook once accidentally tracked what websites members and non-members were visiting. And Google keeps files on all its users. One insider says the company now knows more about Americans than the national security apparatus. Do Google, Facebook, Twitter et al know too much?
Many governments think they do and want to limit the commercial use of private data. The European Union’s Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding drafted new privacy regulations on 25 January 2012, proposing the “right to be forgotten”. This means, “personal data are erased and no longer processed, where the data are no longer necessary [or] where data subjects have withdrawn their consent for processing”.
Some think this is ludicrous, impracticable and a danger to national security, the internet economy, the internet itself, or free speech. Argentina’s right to be forgotten has created worrying precedents: two women who posed for men’s magazines, later went to court to have the images withdrawn. A search for their names on Yahoo! Argentina now yields a blank page with the ominously Orwellian message: “Due to a judicial order solicited by a private party, we regard it as necessary to temporarily withdraw all (2.5m) search results relating to this inquiry.” If the right to be forgotten only helps swimsuit models cover up their past, that may not seem like a big deal. But the case does illustrate that the right to be forgotten must be carefully specified to be useful and not harmful.
To begin with, the right to be forgotten should only address data we create about ourselves. Libel laws already set the necessary boundaries for what others can say about us. Journalism is journalism, and comment is free.
But users should be able and allowed to delete what they have said about themselves through words, deeds, likes, posts and shares, including photos and, after some time, spent criminal convictions, unless it is in the public interest, like a famous person’s autobiography. To some extent, this is already the case: anyone can modify their Facebook timeline by adding and deleting posts and life events. But there needs to be greater transparency and this needs to be a right rather than something that service providers kindly agree to; otherwise new management or new owners may one day decide that nothing can be deleted any more.
Moreover, data collectors must not be able and allowed to keep processed data indefinitely or without user consent. Richard Allan of Facebook argues that, at the moment, reasonable internet users get a reasonable deal: they give away their data in return for free services. If you’re not paying for something online, you’re the product. Or rather, your data is. Much of it is shared unconsciously or unknowingly, even by reasonable users. But your data is your property, and there is a limit to how well advertising agencies can know you before it gets uncomfortable. The right to be forgotten is like a ban, say, on last minute or hidden credit card charges for online shoppers. It alters the “reasonable deal” in favour of the consumer, making their life a bit easier, and forcing companies to try a bit harder. And consumers want that protection: 92% of all Americans are in favour of the right to be forgotten.
One might argue, if users want this, someone will offer a new and better social network, and Facebook & Co. will fade away. But once a social network is established, it is so difficult to leave that users will probably accept a lot they don’t like. To level the playing field, we need the right to be forgotten. There may be technical difficulties, but as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, says: once we have decided that we need the right to be forgotten, we will find a way to make it work.