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(Michelle Thompson For the Globe and Mail)
(Michelle Thompson For the Globe and Mail)

The Internet dilemma: Do people have a right to be forgotten? Add to ...

If the “right to be forgotten” is an attractive name, it’s also a slightly misleading one. “It’s actually more a right to delete than a right to be forgotten,” says Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, a consumer advocacy organization. “The idea is not really about the forgetfulness of companies. The idea is that a company, when asked to remove your data, should delete it in full.”

So, for example, you should have the right not just to delete your Facebook account, but to ensure that all your personal information is permanently scoured from the site.

Indeed, one of the more disconcerting elements of online memory is our lack of control over our digital trails. Nowhere is this clearer than in the question of what to do with our e-mail and social media when we die. A mini-industry has cropped up to deal with this problem.

For example, Google recently announced a tool called Inactive Account Manager, granting you the option to posthumously send your Google data – Gmail messages, YouTube videos, and so on – to a friend or loved one, or to delete it entirely, so that our digital slates, in death, may be wiped clean.

The changing face of online memory is also apparent, in a slightly more frivolous form, in Snapchat, a smartphone app that embraces impermanence. Like countless other apps, Snapchat allows you to take a photo or video, and send it to friends. The difference is that, after 10 seconds or less, the photo is deleted forever. Not even the company holds on to the data. Its mascot, fittingly, is a ghost.

Although Snapchat’s primary function might seem pornographic – imagine the consequence-free possibilities – it has proved more popular than that: 150 million auto-destructing photos now pass through the app every day. The company recently raised $13.5-million, and Facebook has released a copycat service called Poke. Snapchat has struck a chord, perhaps, because we all long to be forgotten.

But just as not everything should be remembered, surely not everything should be deleted. So how do we strike a balance? Prof. Mayer-Schönberger has one pragmatic suggestion: assigning optional expiry dates to data. For example, every Facebook post might exist for some predetermined amount of time before it vanishes.

“You could still share a lot of information,” he notes. “You could at the same time, though, control how long you want to share something for, and that is up to you. You basically condition the digital tools to be forgetful.”

To further illustrate the value of forgetting, Prof. Mayer-Schönberger points to Funes the Memorious, a short story by the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The title character, a boy who suffered a horse-riding accident, is incapable of forgetting and becomes lost in specificity: the creation of a new numeric system, the classification of his every childhood memory.

“To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions,” Borges writes. “In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.”

And what about Rehtaeh Parsons? Although most of the media attention surrounding her death focused on “cyberbullying,” the word itself hardly does justice to the misogynist torture she faced. Now, in death, she faces a different kind of malice: posthumous victim-blaming.

After her death, anonymous online trolls set up a fake “The Real Rehtaeh Parsons” Facebook account, and, last week, National Post columnist Christie Blatchford even suggested that the girl had lied about being raped.

Online, Rehtaeh faces a sort of permanent libel – even more ugly, in some ways, than the kind she faced in life, because it is public and available by typing a few words into a search bar. And it exists in perpetuity,.

Perhaps that’s what her father meant when he wrote that he did not want his daughter “defined by a Google search.” Not just that he didn’t want the horrific circumstances of her death to serve as a tombstone, but that granting primacy to those circumstances gives power to her tormentors: the boys who raped her, the kids who bullied her, the police who dismissed her case, the trolls who still savage her memory.

Turning away from endless online memory does not mean that we should forget someone like Rehtaeh Parsons. But it could mean considering how our digital lives might be reshaped to better reflect what is best about human memory: its selectivity, its fallibility, its sensibility.

Otherwise, we could end up like poor Funes, afloat on a sea of endless detail, the broader view obscured by our own eternal knowledge.

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