Forget About It!

Innovation Times

Posted by JR Reagan on August 21, 2013

Follow JR @IdeaXplorer Connect with JR


Across Europe, the “right to be forgotten” – the ability to hit a delete button and claim some control over one’s online presence and identity – is a guaranteed human right, one that’s being discussed and tested in the courts across that union. It’s also a concept that’s now gaining traction in the United States. As scholars, policy makers, and pundits weigh its benefits against the right to free speech and other considerations, the ability to manage one’s digital legacy is making headlines in major news outlets and sparking debates across our nation.

The big discussions are over digital memory: its persistence, our right to privacy, and our inborn ability, as humans, to forget. Unlike a locked diary full of questionable content, embarrassing social media pics ostensibly exist eternally in timelines for all to see, and general posts – whether angry rants or mind-numbing reviews of recent meals – are now all archived in the Library of Congress and elsewhere, where they live on, seemingly forever.

Some experts are calling for “digital expiration dates” as a possible solution. Like a carton of milk that has a limited period of usefulness, smelly garbage that begs to be taken to the curb, or a polyester pantsuit that should be headed for a thrift store, digital expiration would allow users to assign a date when they’d like information to go “poof,” and disappear from the collective, and so-called permanent, digital memory.

But what, truly, is the nature of memory, digital or otherwise? What overarching purpose does it serve? Furthermore, does digital memory really last forever, or is it more ephemeral than most of us think?

Were we to be given the ability to set expiration dates on information, what might the consequences be?

Bad memories

A New York Times Magazine article, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” (July 21, 2010), examines how we can live in a world where the Internet saves everything and nothing is forgotten.

In the real world, with faded family photos in peeling albums, we shrink every time mom turns to the page containing the “naked baby in the tub” picture. We wish she’d forget about it already. But her audience is limited, and thus is our shame.

In the digital world, however, we might become as fearful as celebrities perpetually stalked by paparazzi. We could duck friends with cameras so we don’t get tagged in photos doing something employers or families might frown upon. We might even self-censure our every thought before posting it, knowing that it could continue to haunt us years later.

Defining forever

We have a right to be concerned if every email, blog post, and retail purchase we make is stored on permanently on the Internet. If that’s the case, we should certainly consider implementing digital expiration dates, or similar means of erasure.

However, Meg Leta Ambrose argues that digital information is more ephemeral than we think, and is far from being inscribed in stone – or in the cloud – forever. Following this train of thought, digital expiration dates would be unnecessary, and perhaps detrimental.

Both a Juris Doctor and computer science scholar, Ambrose presents a wide-ranging approach to digital memory in “It’s About Time: Privacy, Information Life Cycles, and the Right to be Forgotten” (Stanford Technology Law Review, Volume 16, Number 2, Winter 2013). In this academic paper, she calls into question the permanency of information stored on the Internet and elsewhere.

“Quite the opposite of permanent, the Web cannot be self-preserving,” Leta Ambrose states. “One study from the field of content persistence, a body of research that has been almost wholly overlooked by legal scholars, found that 85% of content disappears in a year and that 59% disappears in a week, signifying a decrease in the lifespan of online content when compared with previous studies.”

Data on the Internet isn’t all that different from other resources, according to Leta Ambrose: “Information is perishable. Its value depreciates over time.” That which sticks around is data residing with “entities that have the resources to and interest in maintaining access to information as it ages.”

While seeing the value of the works of others, Leta Ambrose argues that expiration dates and other methods to redact or retract information might not be necessary. After all, the Internet is still, in a sense, in its infancy.

It has, she says, “transformed greatly in the last 10 years. It may be that these harms are not pervasive enough to regulate, can be managed by other means, or do not justify a manipulation of the Web as it is still transitioning. Or one may perceive this aspect of the Web as a very good reason to allow individuals to be forgotten; after all, much of the Web disappears. Why not offer oblivion to those hurt by rare instances of content persistence that includes the subject’s name?”

Rewriting history?

In discussing the rights of two European murderers to remove Wikipedia entries and accounts of their crimes from other web sites, Leta Ambrose quotes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which responded to the cases with this statement: “At stake is the integrity of history itself.”

From an archivist’s perspective – those charged with keeping a society’s records, from the mundane to the remarkable, from the digital to the written word – the right to be forgotten, and concepts like digital expiration dates, “would have an undeniable effect on the preservation of the individual and collective memory of society.”

In an article for the International Association of Privacy Professionals, Cherri-Ann Beckles makes the case that instead of legislating and arguing over the benefits of the right to be forgotten or digital expiration dates, “More attention should instead be paid to educating individuals to ensure that the record they create on themselves is one they wish to be left behind.”

She concludes, “Archivists recognize that without the actions and ideas of people, both individually and collectively, life would be meaningless. Society only benefits from the actions and ideas of people when they are recorded, preserved for posterity and made available. Consequently, the ‘right to be forgotten’ if not properly executed, may lead to ‘the society that was forgotten.’”

A forgotten society? Imagine if cavemen had taken chisels to erase their stories, or later societies burned important papyri. What would we now know of their cultures? If we’re able to assign expiration dates to our information – be it banal or volatile – what ramifications might result? If we guard and remove parts of our online memories and identities, how will future generations make sense of our redacted stories? What conclusions might they draw, and what gaps might they miss? Furthermore, what might we ourselves lose? In the words of George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Digital expiration dates, as proposed, sound like a good idea. But if we have no way to predict whether the clothing in the darkest corners of our closets will remain as outdated as 70s disco gear, or unexpectedly make a hipster resurgence, how then will we possibly be able to assign expiration dates to information before the passage of time informs us that it will be relevant – and if not relevant to us, then to someone else, or to society at large? In hindsight, everything’s 20/20. In reality, it’s just not that clear.