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Among the most controversial provisions within the proposed EU data protection regulation is “the right to be forgotten.”  The proposal, which would allow individuals to remove data companies have collected about them online unless the company can demonstrate a legitimate need, has elicited concerns from industry about its potential effects on both innovation and free speech. Others have said the provision would simply be unenforceable.

Internet co-founder Vint Cerf has called the provision impractical, saying it’s “very, very hard to get the Internet to forget things that you don’t want it to remember” and suggests, when it comes to protecting ones’ reputation in perpetuity online, that parents engage their children in “the art of critical thinking” instead.

While EU Justice Minister Viviane Reding has said the provision must be balanced with other rights protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, there has been significant pushback, especially from industry and U.S. diplomats. Additionally, whether the provision is even technically feasible has been hotly debated.

Whether European Parliament includes the proposal as it stands within the final version of the new regulation remains to be seen. But maybe philosophically this provision goes much deeper than the deletion of online data.

Maybe the perceived need for its existence says something significant about our humanity.

During a recent conversation about the proposal, Hogan Lovells’ Harriet Pearson, CIPP/US, recently suggested to me that perhaps what we as a global society need more than a right to be forgotten is a “right to be forgiven.”

“The right to be forgotten can work in certain instances, but there are lots of reasons why data can’t be erased,” Pearson says. “Maybe society can functionally address some of the issues here, some of what motivates the desire for the right to be forgotten, by also taking steps to champion and preserve over time the American approach to forgiveness.”

America has a long history of allowing an individual who has made a mistake to overcome it with either the passing of time or redemption, Pearson says. For example, a person who makes poor financial choices may declare bankruptcy, and after seven years, the filing is expunged from public records. In a prior era, a person whose reputation had been tarnished could pick up and move to a new place where starting over was possible. In an interconnected, information-rich age, the analog to “starting over” might be widespread agreement that an individual’s harmless-enough online activities are “off limits” to inform any consequential decision about the person.

Pearson says realistically data may not ever be deleted from every nook and cranny on the Web. But there are other ways to respect an individual’s autonomy and privacy.

“Maybe what we should be debating and making stronger is our right to be forgiven,” she says.

At the IAPP Privacy Academy in San Jose last October, John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, suggested that in a more transparent world, one in which we’re able to see each other’s figurative bumps and bruises, maybe we’ll become more tolerant of each other, realizing that “we’re all a bit weirder than we imagined.” Perhaps the searchable online histories feared to tarnish our reputations and brand us as the mistakes we once made will in fact humanize us to each other as the fallible creatures we are. In that way, our differences become a connecting link.

I was reminded of the importance of difference—what we might perceive as “strange” when compared to our notion of “normal,” when I recently returned to Uruguay 30 years after I’d been an exchange student there. Immersed again into a culture so different from my own, I was reminded of the beauty and awe that exists in difference; that it’s something to be revered and celebrated rather than feared.

Maybe our vulnerabilities, our weirdness, our differences displayed transparently to each other online become a celebration of both the diversity and the sameness that exist within our humanness. Maybe we become more tolerant.

Is it possible that a stronger sense of humanity could come from a data-driven, more transparent society?

We’d love to hear what you think.

1 Comment

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  • comment Karn Jani • Apr 10, 2013
    One can only ask for forgiveness and then be patient for others to respond. Demanding a 'right to be forgiven' seems very unrealistic. It’s true that 'right to be forgotten' would have to be read in the same tone as a right to be forgiven, but forgiveness comes with repentance and patience. Such emotions can’t be displayed in the digital world. This limitation marks the difference between us as human and Internet as only a technological development. One must seek forgiveness through his/her offline behavior and demand to be forgotten as far as online past is concerned. That would put both the rights in perspective.