Do I have the right to be forgotten?

If I remember or document something about you, should you have the right to silence my memory or documentation of that event? That seems to be the crux of an argument around the Right to be Forgotten in a proposed revision to the Privacy Directive by The European Commission. Peter Fleisher, a member of Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, breaks down the variety of ways we might invoke a right to be forgotten in his post, Foggy Thinking About the Right to Oblivion. I’m not going to rehash the eight variations on the right to forget covered in Peter’s post, you should read them for yourself. I do want to speak more specifically about the idea of someone posting something about you online and you asking them to remove it.

I’ll use myself as an example. Lets say I attend a party at your house, I have too much to drink, and along the way you take a photo of me dancing on your table and post it on Flickr or your Facebook account. Maybe I’m embarassed the next day and ask you to delete the photo. As my friend, you might do me the favor of editing my embarassing behavior from the Internet, but do I have the right to demand the photo be removed if you choose not to?

Like it or not, I don’t think I have any right to demand the removal of the photo. It’s your memory of an event where our personal timelines intersect. There could be social repercussions in your ignoring my request. At the extreme end, I might stop interacting with you or I might simply think twice about attending your next party. Since this is me we are using as an example, my more likely course of action would be to edit my own behavior and accept the photo as a reminder that I shouldn’t act like an idiot in public because other people are watching.

Another example comes from my inbox. Sometime ago I wrote an article about how to delete videos from YouTube. Occasionally I get emails from people asking how they can remove a video on someone else’s YouTube account. One particular instance that sticks out is a woman who wanted a video deleted because the person in the video no longer worked for their company. There was a link to the video in the email and from what I could tell, the video presented the company’s product accurately, it just included someone who no longer worked there. The woman who contacted me wanted to know how she could get the video deleted from YouTube. My response was that I wasn’t sure she could, unless there was some misrepresentation of the product, because just like being quoted in an article, or being cited in a book, the video was a snapshot of reality at the time it was recorded. The video did not appear to be created with the intent of doing harm to the company, nor did the person representing the company in the video appear to be doing anything other than performing their job. Like any other historic documentation, that video was a snapshot in time.

That’s where my greatest concern lies around the right to be forgotten. People who want to demand content be removed from the Internet, just because they are in it, are asking the rest of us to censor our thoughts. They are asking that we edit our memories. As science moves forward, will we get to a point where we are asked to edit the ultimate storage of these memories? Our own brains may become subject to the discussion around the right to forget. What if as part of the job termination process we are asked to have our brains cleansed of corporate secrets. Or in a divorce proceeding we are required to have the details of the relationship eliminated from memory.

We have appeared in other people’s photo albums and scrapbooks for years. Sometimes the memories are fond, sometimes they are embarrassing, and sometimes we’d rather they never happened. The Internet is making this scrapbooking more public, but it doesn’t change the nature of it. Anytime I show up in your blog post, or in your photo archive, it’s because our lives intersected. In my mind, that gives you just as much right to the memories as it does to me. Just because I don’t like something about myself, doesn’t mean I have the right to make you forget my past, does it?