The EU is currently proposing laws that would require web site and service owners to delete individuals’ personal information from their records. The new laws aim to uphold a person’s “right to be forgotten.”
How do you feel about your right to be forgotten? To be honest, until I read this article, I didn’t realize being forgotten was a right. This news seems to reflect an intriguing new stage in our restlessly evolving relationship with technology.
Historically, humans have striven to be remembered. For millennia, individuals have spent their lives working to leave an inspiring, respectable legacy. Friends of mine who are parents cite that desire for legacy as one of the reasons why they have children. From the Egyptian pyramids to biological, astronomical and other scientific names that sport their discoverers’ own monikers, evidence abounds that many humans’ greatest desire is to leave their marks on the world.
Some argue that a key difference between humans and other animals is our memory. As a collective, we know that memory is precious, rich and often fleeting.
But technology breaks all the barriers humans face in the race to maintain recollection. Data can be stored indefinitely. And while previously web users were more concerned with saving data — backing up systems, distributing that storage across media and locations — and with organizing the information we had to allow easy, swift access to those digital memories, clearly, the tide is turning.
The question of a right to privacy seems to be less one of corporate data assets than it is about personal privacy. According to the report, this EU proposal was sparked by the fact that social networking sites failed to remove personal data that users themselves had supposedly deleted from the sites.
Yet the reason users are concerned about the preservation of that information — the perpetuation of a less-than-venerable online legacy — appears primarily to reflect a fear of our being poorly assessed by corporations and other bodies we may want to join.
If you read about furor over a copyright complaint against cookery magazine Cooks Source last week, you know that reputations can be undone in an instant online. We watch the blunders of big players, and follow the online commentary that ensues — and while we may thrill to see the fat cats fail, we all know that next week, it could be us. HR could all too easily find those pictures of us acting up at a party, and then what?
In the past, we could rely on the frailty of human memory to dim the memories of our indiscretions. But now we have to fight to keep our legacy “pure” — to maintain, if you like, the consistency of our personal brands not just online, but in the world at large. We happily used technology to create virtual versions of ourselves. Now we’re finding those virtual versions more robust than we ever expected.
The good things we may have done, personally or professionally, don’t necessarily compete with the achievements of our peers. Perhaps they don’t make for such entertaining or popular photos. In the world of the Virtual Me, we may find it’s our less socially acceptable behavior, as depicted and recorded online, that differentiates us from others: job candidates, colleagues and contacts.
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When all is said and done, we own our personal data. Even if we provide an organization our details, the organization doesn’t own that information. The privacy laws that countries all over the world have developed are a testament to our agreement on this point.
So why do we need to assert our “right to be forgotten”? According to the article:
“Viviane Reding, Europe’s rights commissioner, said the world of data protection had been transformed by popular new technologies in the 15 years since data protection legislation was last amended.
‘Internet users must have effective control of what they put online and be able to correct, withdraw or delete it at will,’ she said.”
While no one disagrees with this principle, the fact is that people will remember us for who we are and what we do. If these proposed laws pass, they sound like they’ll be there to protect us from our reputations not among web users on the other side of the world, but among the people we know — or will meet — face-to-face, in our own towns and neighborhoods.
In that case, peoples’ online reputations are only part of the equation: we’ll have to hope our words and actions offline don’t speak too negatively for themselves.
What about you: are you worried that your “right to be forgotten” is being infringed?
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