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Net.wars: A forgotten man and a bowl of Japanese goldfish

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 June 2011


"I'm the forgotten man," Godfrey (William Powell) explains in the 1936 film My Man Godfrey.

Wendy M Grossman

Godfrey was speaking during the Great Depression, when prosperity was just around the corner ("Yes, it's been there a long time," says one of Godfrey's fellow city dump dwellers) but the reality for many people was unemployment, poverty, and a general sense that they had ceased to exist except, perhaps, as curiosities to be collected by the rich in a scavenger hunt. Today the rich in question would record their visit to the city dump in an increasingly drunken stream of Tweets and Facebook postings, and people in Nepal would be viewing photographs and video clips even if Godfrey didn't use a library computer to create his own Facebook page.

The EU's push for a right to be forgotten is a logical outgrowth of today's data protection principles, which revolve around the idea that you have rights over your data even when someone else has paid to collect it. EU law grants the right to inspect and correct the data held about us and to prevent its use in unwanted marketing. The idea that we should also have the right to delete data we ourselves have posted seems simple and fair, especially given the widely reported difficulty of leaving social networks.

But reality is complicated. Godfrey was fictional; take a real case, from Pennsylvania. A radiology trainee, unsure what to do when she wanted a reality check whether the radiologist she was shadowing was behaving inappropriately, sought advice from her sister, also a health care worker before reporting the incident. The sister told a co-worker about the call, who told others, and someone in that widening ripple posted the story on Facebook, from where it was reported back to the student's program director. Result: the not-on-Facebook trainee was expelled on the grounds that she had discussed a confidential issue on a cell phone. Lawsuit.

So many things had to go wrong for that story to rebound and hit that trainee in the ass. No one – except presumably the radiologist under scrutiny – did anything actually wrong, though the incident illustrates the point that this is more complicated than people think. Preventing this kind of thing is hard. No contract can bar unrelated, third-hand gossipers from posting information that comes their way. There's nothing to invoke libel law. The worst you can say is that the sister was indiscreet and that the program administrator misunderstood and overreacted. But the key point for our purposes here is: which data belongs to whom?

Lilian Edwards has a nice analysis of the conflict between privacy and freedom of expression that is raised by the right to forget. The comments and photographs I post seem to me to belong to me, though they may be about a dozen other people. But on a social network your circle of friends are also stakeholders in what you post; you become part of their library. Howard Rheingold, writing in his 1992 book The Virtual Community, noted the ripped and gaping fabric of conversations on The Well when early member Blair Newman deleted all his messages. Photographs and today's far more pervasive, faster-paced technology make such holes deeper and multi-dimensional. How far do we need to go in granting deletion rights?

The short history of the Net suggests that complete withdrawal is roughly impossible. In the 1980s, Usenet was thought of as an ephemeral medium. People posted in the – they thought – safe assumption that anything they wrote would expire off the world's servers in a couple of weeks. And as long as everyone read live online that was probably true. But along came offline readers and people with large hard disks and Deja News, and Usenet messages written in 1981 with no thought of any future context are a few search terms away.

"It's a mistake to only have this conversation about absolutes," said Google's Alma Whitten at the Big Tent event two weeks ago, arguing that it's impossible to delete every scrap about anyone. Whitten favors a "reasonable effort" approach and a user dashboard to enable that so users can see and control the data that's being held. But we all know the problem with market forces: it is unlikely that any of the large corporations will come up with really effective tools unless forced. For one thing, there is a cultural clash here between the EU and the US, the home of many of these companies. But more important, it's just not in their interests to enable deletion: mining that data is how those companies make a living and in return we get free stuff.

Finding the right balance between freedom of expression (my right to post about my own life) and privacy, including the right to delete, will require a mix of answers as complex as the questions: technology (such as William Heath's Mydex), community standards, and, yes, law, applied carefully. We don't want to replace Britain's chilling libel laws with a DMCA-like deletion law.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).