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The Privacy Advisor | Book review: 'Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten' Related reading: Book review: 'Technology vs. Humanity'

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“The internet is forever.”

So says the common wisdom. It is a plea for coeds to think twice before posting pictures of the latest party, for internet trolls to reconsider their inflammatory comments, and for tech lawyers to avoid displaying their full-length poetry dedicated to Season four of Psych (inspiration strikes where it pleases).

But what if the internet didn’t have to be forever? What if there was a way to erase evidence of your worst mistakes, your most embarrassing photographs and memories? Meg Leta Jones explores how the world could apply this technological idea in “Ctrl + Z: The Right to be Forgotten.”

The right to be forgotten entered the public consciousness through European legislation and the impact of rulings like the Google Spain case, where a plaintiff sought to have information about past debts removed from search engines because the debts were settled and no longer relevant. As the volume of information collected about individuals has increased through Internet of Things proliferation, data brokers, cookies, and tracking, more people are seeking a way to limit or control the amount of information about themselves that is available to others.

The book starts by establishing why the ability to remove personal information from the internet would be appealing. First, control over reputation lets individuals have a say in forming their identities. Second, Leta Jones posits that the right to be forgotten enables more redemption and forgiveness in a society by allowing the visceral memory of a mistake to fade and make way for healing and new growth. On a practical level, we can all think of some old information or pictures that we would rather employers, in-laws, and cute people we meet for coffee never see.

Leta Jones continues her examination of the issue by comparing the European approach to the right to be forgotten with the United States’ emphasis on right to information. Her writing style here is engaging and clear – for every law or legal theory she presents, she includes an interesting case or illustration of the concept.  These stories bring the legal theory to a human level by showing how ever-present information affects people’s daily lives.

European law tends to favor reputational protection over a public right to information. The book explores the complex legal and societal reasons for this stance, emphasizing that the question comes down to determining whether right to control information trumps the public’s “right to know.” Europe sides with the individual’s right to protect their reputation and withhold information from the public unless it is relevant. U.S. law falls in the opposite direction. 

As Leta Jones puts it, “The European right to be forgotten does not fit our legal culture.” The default position of U.S. law in this area is to promote freedom of speech, often understood to be freedom of information. Restricting or removing information is often seen as censorship. There are a few specific exceptions in U.S. law that impose tighter restrictions on information. Children’s information is protected more stringently. Victims of crimes like revenge porn may find redress in state laws. However, these scenarios are the exception rather than the rule. As Leta Jones puts it, “U.S. law reinforces the notion that we are at the mercy of the people around us.”

After hearing so much about the U.S. approach to information, you may think the right to be forgotten is a lost cause over here.

Not so fast. 

Leta Jones challenges us to expand the way we approach the problem. Rather than seeing information as entirely controlled or entirely uncontrollable, she proposes several approaches that would allow a compromise: more control than is currently available without complete censorship.

Processors and controllers of information could act as stewards, setting standards for what information is in the public interest and what is needlessly harmful.  Information could be assigned different values of discoverability based on the source of the information, the length of time it has been online, and other variables.  Search engines and regulations between information generated by the subject or generated by others, between active posting and analytics information, between a single post or a click-stream.

Even if we still want to share information as often as possible, sources and search engines can take measures to ensure as much accuracy as possible. Posts can be dated so viewers can easily see the timing relevance. We could mandate that information be corrected with new developments. Leta Jones does not make a firm endorsement of any one solution, but the sheer volume of possibilities challenges us to consider that the answer may not be as all-or-nothing as it seems.

“Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten” sheds light on a tricky concept and dares us to imagine a world where we can move beyond our mistakes, digitized or not. The internet is forever? Not for long.

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