Never forgetting anything ever again: this has been one of the promises of the Internet. It’s why we entrust photos to online storage sites. Who still writes in a journal instead of just logging on to update their Facebook timeline?
The European Union is proposing a new law about Internet privacy whose central feature is a “right to be forgotten” law that is meant to give users more control over their personal data. Article 17 of the Data Protection Regulation was created due to cases like that of Austrian law student Max Schems, who fought Facebook for months to get back his personal data — which amounted to 1,222 pages of material — in 2011, says the Guardian. What are Facebook and other social media sites actually up to with all the personal data we post on them?
The precise terms of the new regulations are still being developed but one provision is that companies who refuse to comply would face penalties of up to 2 percent of their global profits. Says Viviane Reding, justice commissioner for the EU:
“At present a citizen can request deletion only if [data is] incomplete or incorrect. We want to extend this right to make it stronger in this internet world. The burden of proof shall be on the companies. They will have to show that data is needed.”
Under the “right to forget,” teenagers who had posted photos of themselves in compromising situations could request to have these deleted. People could also request that social media companies remove that embarrassing status update they posted in a less than “thoughtful” state of mind.
Is Our Personal Data Under-protected?
Not surprisingly, Facebook and other tech companies such as Microsoft are wary of the new law. Microsoft Europe’s chief operating officer, Ron Zink, has opined that the new regulations might be “too prescriptive.” One U.S. diplomat is warning that the new law could spark a “trade war” on the grounds that we do not necessarily have a “fundamental right to data protection.”
As Michael Venables writes on Forbes, when it comes to our personal data, we in the U.S. could indeed use more protection:
Elise Ackerman reports that Google And Facebook routinely ignore “Do Not Track” Requests, claiming they confuse consumers. Kashmir Hill posted that Facebook is creating partnerships with Axciom, Epsilon, Datalogix and Blue Kai and making use of these companies’ first party website data to better profile customers for ads, sales opportunities or cold shouldering.
So much about ourselves is online and not only on social media sites in accounts that we’ve set up for ourselves. Our medical and financial data — our “life data” — are posted online in what are supposed to be password-protected sites, though reports of government, credit card company and school sites being hacked may lead one to feel dubious.
Is Being Able to Forget Part of Being Human?
Wonkish concerns about the niceties of intellectual property aside, the EU’s proposed law highlights some of the unexpected issues, or rather problems, the Internet has spawned. The immortality offered by websites can be something of a curse; just because you’ve deleted a blog doesn’t mean that the information, data or the webpages themselves may not be circulating somewhere ’round the web.
Victor Mayer-Schonberger, a professor of internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute even argues that the right to be forgotten is part of being human; that being able to forget things helps us to move on:
“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.”
Mayer-Schonberger describes an extreme case, that of a California woman, AJ, later identified as Jill Price, who has a neurological condition hyperthymesia, “that means she cannot forget anything that has ever happened in her life.” If everything about us is stored on internet databases, there are (theoretically) things about us that can, that will, never be forgotten.
What do you think? Are there photos or comments on some website you’ve posted that you shrink at now to recall — that you’re scared to see showing up somewhere on the internet? Now that it is possible for nothing to be forgotten, for no bad memories to be consigned ashes and dust, do we need a law that allows us to forget?
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