Over in Europe there is an interesting debate raging about a “right to be forgotten.” I find it a fascinating debate on many levels, and as a primer point you to this analysis written up by a colleague. At the core of this debate is the ongoing struggle between the right to control one’s reputation and the right of others to say what’s on their mind. But I want to focus on one small piece of the “right to be forgotten” as it is framed: has such a right ever existed?
I for one don’t believe any of us has the right to be forgotten, as a simple statement of reality. My memories are my own, they are etchings of experiences I have had and people I have met. They aren’t anyone else’s to decide I should forget. But, like the oft-spoken wisdom, even if we can’t forget we can forgive.
Take the example of a murderer acquitted who wants to leave his alleged criminal past behind him, but cannot thanks to the Internet, and suffers poor social treatment in work, love and life forever afterwards. The murderer is not poorly treated later in life because someone has remembered or discovered he is a murderer; he is poorly treated because society cannot respect the forgiveness bestowed upon him presumably by his government.
One of my great concerns, generally, with information policy is that we find it so easy to cast blame on the information itself as the cause of social ills. I have this gut instinct that such an approach may create a great many unintended consequences, without actually solving the root of the problem. This is I suppose similar to Nicklas’ observation that the debate around forgetting has actually very little to do with technology. In most cases, the existence of the information is not the problem, it is what we as a human society do with that information that causes concern.
Perhaps instead of a right to be forgotten, which to me invokes things like delete and restrict, it seems to me that we need to develop information institutions that could be charged with disseminating “forgotten” information under appropriate circumstances. Achieving that type of institutional development seems more difficult than making a proclamation, and layered on top of the Internet seems to require a degree of architectural and technical design if it is to succeed. So perhaps instead of debating about whether a right to be forgotten should be enshrined or not, we should do an unconference or two focused on the types of technically-supported institutions we need to adeptly forgive in the online world.