Wednesday, May 14, 2014

History and Identity

Yesterday the European Court of Justice issued an important ruling that has the tech policy world buzzing about privacy, search engines and personal history. In short, the court ruled that the EU Data Protection Directive gives a person the right to demand that old information be purged from search results. The particular case involves an attorney seeking removal of links to announcements about a real-estate auction connected with a debt settlement in 1998. While the ECJ made a number of interesting moves in the case (including a welcome argument that the distinction between data processors and data controllers does not make as much sense today as it did in 1995 when the Directive went into effect), the big consequence everyone is talking is the right to be forgotten.

The long memory of the Internet is a feature it's hard not to love and fear at the same time. Whether you have something to hide or not, if it's on the Internet, it stays on the Internet (most of the time, at least, all of the time if you count the Wayback Machine). For most of us, this means that our embarrassing undergrad escapades remain on Facebook for the world to see if they look hard enough. For most of us, it means that we are constantly hearing about politicians or other public figures with this or that skeleton in the closet. For the most part, it's a good thing. The long memory of the Internet promises us that we will not lose another Library of Alexandria or Dharmaganja, the great library of Nalanda.

On the other hand, it also means that we are very easily haunted by our pasts. Even analyses critical of the ECJ rulling (this one presents an argument worth thinking about) acknowledge that the debate is about the power to shape one's public image. On the one hand, we value honesty, truth, and accuracy, but on the other hand, we value autonomy that presumably includes choosing how we present ourselves to the world.

This case, and similar ones mentioned in the ruling and other analyses, brings to the front important questions about identity. Can we understand who we are as nothing other than points of data, or is our identity more located in the narrative that links those points together? Quantified self tools advocate the former to liberate us from false self-perceptions and cleanse bias from our self-reflection. As such, there is clearly a liberating potential to such tools, and embracing mindfulness of objective metrics can have a powerful revelatory effect.

Nevertheless, there is also a risk of bondage to data. Individual data points are by themselves very uninteresting. They are static, frozen points in time, so they do not really do anything. They merely sit as recorded. The patterns we draw between those points, the transitions and changes, turn that data into an event, an event we know as human life. Even in a post-modern context where we understand that there are many possible stories to tell about the same dataset, selecting and validating a story is a deep expression of autonomy. In the end, we must look back on our lives, on a collection of frozen points, and decide, for ourselves, whether we regret or celebrate, whether we feel relief or anguish.


Insofar as the right to be forgotten allows us to take ownership of who we are now, it contributes to that autonomy. Honesty and truth are important ethical values, but so is forgiveness. If we shackle ourselves entirely to our pasts, if we allow others to tell our stories through points of data, we do not allow people to change, to express regret for what they have done, to make amends, and to move forward.

It is important to remember something here; we are not talking about removing information, only about removing results from an index. Anyone who wants to find out can still do so through regular channels of public record. They simply do not appear in search results that might color the present with a past more than 15 years distant. Maybe the case should be very different for different issues or types of information. Still, we should remember that the issue at hand isn't as simple as history or the preservation of information or even the crafting of a public persona. It is also about the crafting of personal identity, something very difficult to do when we are reduced to a static array of data.