Since you’re using the internet to read this right now, it’s a safe assumption that even if you’re only a casual world wide web user, there’s something embarrassing about you posted online. (To be honest, I’m not sure what a casual internet user would be.) Any and all important information about you is stored on some kind of database that is accessible through networked computers. Maybe it’s the sheer volume of sensitive data that keeps identity theft at manageable numbers. It’s also the sheer volume of data that makes internet security a thriving industry, instead of collapsing the entire notion of networked data itself under the weight of constant theft and fraud.

Financial cons aren’t the only way someone can have their life ruined by data getting into the wrong hands. Everyone’s heard stories about someone who was fired or not hired after pictures of them having a weekend of debauchery in Vegas got posted on Facebook. And it never seems fair, does it? Shouldn’t there be a divide between personal and professional life, a cudgel through which information about the other shouldn’t pass? Is there a generational difference of opinions here? Judging by how seriously old people take social networking sites, there might be. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain to people over 45 that not all of my Facebook friends are actual friends.

And so it comes down to privacy and the reasonable expectations of it, and confidence (the legal definition of confidence, not what you should feel before an interview), and various interpretations of the 4th and 14th amendments. Boring. But the French are doing something interesting. They’re exploring the idea of droit a l’oubli — which roughly translates to “right to oblivion.” Unfettered of legalese, it basically means that we have a right to forget. Those ten year old pictures of you drunkenly making out with your ex that, for whatever reason, she can’t bring herself to take down — maybe you have a right to enforce a synthetic “forgetfulness,” a public forgetfulness, onto the tyranny of your own electronically archived public past. It’s a poetic notion that carries weight with me. It seems like a step toward making one of these giant, faceless, movements of history more humane and tender to the individuals who have to live through the changes. I also feel like a connection could be made to Charles Taylor’s ideas of recognition politics, or the politics of being seen the way you want to be seen. The right to create your own identity, in short.

At the same time, if there weren’t compelling arguments for the other side, we wouldn’t even be talking about this. You should always be wary of limiting information, truly public information. Imagine if a corporation acted upon its own right to oblivion, as a “person,” and destroyed every public mention of anything bad ever said about it. But what am I worrying about? The right to a modicum of control over your public history is only being explored in the EU. In America we have much more subtle, much more profound methods for destroying history than could ever be legislated.


 

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