On the right to oblivion

In English it’s called the right to be forgotten, but the French, who were the first to legislate it, call it le droit à l’oubli – the right to oblivion – evoking not just the state of being forgotten but also forgetting, not merely being overlooked but also ceasing to be. That very subtle difference – the Latin root of ‘oblivion’ means to forget – is enough to call to mind the deep enmeshing between the digital documentary traces we leave of ourselves and who we are. Erase those traces and we may cease to exist altogether.

At a more prosaic level, the right to oblivion is a legal construct. Though not yet recognised as a universal human right, it grounds in law the expectation that public information circulating about people be timely and relevant so as to represent them fairly. In its simplest form, it dictates that long-past indiscretions may not be introduced to discredit someone unless demonstrably pertinent to a current matter.

While it might have been relatively straightforward to enforce such an expectation in the age of broadcasting and print media, the right to oblivion is anathema to digital media. On the internet, everything is now and now is everything. Digital artefacts are ageless, perpetually re-created in the act of being accessed, so the old news about you is never old in a conventional, previously recognised sense. Conversely, it no longer makes sense to speak of relevance. Digital information simply is. The uses to which it might be put and those who might use it are entirely immaterial, and no prerequisite to its continued storage and circulation.

If it seems that I’m attributing a human-like agency – if not a fully-fledged ideology – to a medium or a technology, consider the people-driven business of companies like Facebook and Google, and of not-for-profit The Internet Archive. The former offer services for uploading and searching personal information, whose immeasurable popularity can be advanced as the justification for an entire architecture of knowledge of human affairs. Volunteering information about ourselves and searching for information about other people is clearly something we like to do a lot. The more power we are given, the more we do it, erasing and rewriting social norms in the process.

As for The Internet Archive, it fulfils the desire of the internet to perpetuate itself through time, even as it purports to exist forever in the now. It’s true that there is no ‘date’ to today’s edition of the World Wide Web, for it contains all past information as well. Yet we can take snapshots of the web and date them. That is the content of the great archive: the internet not as it is, but as it was at various times in the past – and, to make matters worse, all these past internets are part of the present internet as well.

What hope is there for oblivion in a medium that is so pervasive, powerful and self-replicating? What chance is there not just to forget but also to have something forgotten within an information system that makes endless copies of itself?

With a judgement handed down in May, the European Court of Justice has sought to empower EU citizens to request that search engines – read, at the present time, Google – remove links to their personal information. While I don’t have much faith in the effectiveness of such instruments, I was heartened by the response: over 40,000 takedown requests were sent Google’s way within a week of its web form going live. Coupled with the popularity of deliberately ephemeral social networks like Snapchat and the proliferation of software tools, services and web forums devoted to reducing people’s online visibility, this suggests that there is a rising tide of sentiment against that great, unspoken default setting of the internet: that all information – including all personal information – should be saved.

This perfect, blameless memory, this all-encompassing knowledge of facts, people and things, was the nurturing fiction of the early age of the internet and the key to its utopian promise. But now we can expand our imagination. Now we can seek to build what media ecologists like Viktor Mayer-Schönberger have been advocating for the last decade: an internet that forgets.

It’s difficult to know what such an internet might look like, or how it might affect the dominant ideas about subjectivity and the social. It’s not even clear where that forgotten information might go. Will it just be a matter of severing links, the way Google is being asked to do, thereby leaving the content untouched, perfectly preserved but effectively unmoored, unreachable? That, too, could affect our new psychological state, the feeling – or outright knowledge – that something has been displaced, as if in a techno-Freudian vision.

What seems to me quite certain is that we won’t get there without a struggle. There is too much interest, too much commercial value in the disseminated knowledge of who we are and what we desire, as well as an entire worldview invested in the integrity of the archive. We have a lot to learn and to teach one another about the virtues of oblivion.