Editor’s Note: This post was a collaboration between graduate student Aditi Chawla, professor Martha Garcia-Murillo, and associate professor Ian MacInnes

Another piece of the recently-launched European General Data Protection Regulation is the Right to be Forgotten. There is some timely research from iSchool faculty members Martha Garcia-Murillo and Ian MacInnes that addresses the regulatory aspects of social media. We will briefly describe the research, focusing on a recently published article in Telecommunications Policy about a type of privacy protection, “the Right to be Forgotten (RtbF),” that has been controversial in the United States and Europe.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation, the RtbF allows European Union residents to request that personal information be deleted (delisted) from search engines and other sites that may contain this personal information.

Martha Garcia-Murillo and Ian MacInnes

Faculty members Martha Garcia-Murillo and Ian MacInnes argue that the Right to be Forgotten legislation is not the best approach to protect people against the consequences of having personal information shared across the Internet.

Garcia-Murillo and MacInnes argue that by implementing this right to be forgotten we, in the pursuit of our individual interests to keep some personal data hidden, can lose the greater societal benefits of a movement towards greater empathy from greater self-disclosure. All of us make mistakes and only after we begin to understand others’ mistakes, can we hope to attain a more realistic expectation of human behavior.

The authors agree that people who are convicted of a crime face discrimination long after their sentence is complete. Similar consequences face those who have been shamed on social media. However, instead of controlling the disclosure of information, Garcia-Murillo and MacInnes would like society to focus on protecting people from these injustices through anti-discrimination laws and regulations.

The authors state that the RtbF is being seen as a step to control personal data, but they believe that the focus should be on the potential negative effects of the information rather than the control and deletion of it. The RtbF is not the best approach to protect people against the consequences of having personal information disclosed and the following points support this objection.

First, there is a conflict between societal and individual interests. Examples include overfishing, deforestation, and animal extinction where personal self-interest has harmed society. Other examples include people with disabilities and individuals identifying with the LGBT community who often avoid public acknowledgment of their identity due to potential social disapproval. The rights of individuals should be enforced, but not if they are outweighed by those of other individuals in an organized public or society. Young people, especially teenagers, use social media in the hopes of achieving celebrity. They want acceptance, popularity, and to entertain using social media, but this can sometimes lead to the problem of discrimination by others based on activities that some disapprove of.

The second point presented by the authors is the challenge to the personal control of data, which has been in the news recently due to the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal. Having mutual friends and different privacy settings, we can never be sure who is viewing our data and how many people can access and distribute the information that we post online. Our lives are now hyper-connected; we can copy, edit, host, and share information in a digital environment that is not affected by decay.

Even if we try to delete the information from all online sources, someone who has saved the information on their personal systems can re-post it at any time. Storing information is much easier and cheaper than deleting it. Also, deleting information can be difficult due to differing beliefs, where one party wants to delete the information from the Internet another wants to retain it for archival purposes resulting in a waste of resources.

The RtbF also disregards the future value of information. That is, the idea that information we post about ourselves today can be valuable in the future. It also does not take into consideration that technologies of the future may bring significant benefits from the analysis of such posted information.

Deleting Data

The Right to be Forgotten disregards the future value of information, and doesn’t consider that new technologies could bring significant benefits from the analysis of such posted information.

It is also important to note that the process in which a certain deletion request is being handled can be different for different people and hence unfair. People are capable of treating two similar situations in different ways due to distractions, being tired, implicit biases and, if done by computers, less than perfect algorithms that may yield different judgments.

The RtbF supports the rise of sanitized selves where people work towards maintaining a perfect ‘image’ in society. Some people are able to succeed in spite of their mistakes, and this history should be celebrated rather than deleted. Efforts to delete, delist, or suppress information further perpetuate the fear of being negatively affected by content online, while preserving the mistaken notion of the perfect individual.

The paper then gives us alternatives for the RtbF. One is to work toward changing societal norms. The researchers find that forgiving can be a better way of healing than forgetting. It takes into consideration the human side of the victim as well as the perpetrator and thus accepts the mistakes that humans are capable of making.

The second suggestion that the authors give as an alternative to RtbF is the use of technology in verifying and prioritizing articles in search engines based on their impartiality and authenticity. Other factors like quality, veracity, and age can also be included in filtering articles and showing the user the most relevant ones among the first to be listed in a search.

The third suggestion is to enforce anti-discrimination laws so that people’s private data is not used against them. This is also important because social media is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid and people’s work or non-leisure activities should not dictate how they must conduct their lives outside of those contexts.

Garcia-Murillo and MacInnes oppose the RtbF because, in the desire to preserve individual interests, societal interests may actually end up worse off by perpetuating the notion of human perfection. In the end, it is important to note that each one of us is imperfect and learning from our mistakes and accepting those of others will lead to a more empathetic society.