Can the internet truly forget?

Can the internet truly forget?

Last week, Google released information on its efforts to comply with a May 2014 European Court of Justice ruling which implements the so-called “right to be forgotten” across the internet.  In the case, a Spanish national sued for the removal of search results which led to newspaper announcements about social security debts.  Google ultimately lost its appeal, and the court required it to field requests for removal of information from the public.

Since the court order went into effect, Google has fielded 353,608 from European citizens, and evaluated 1,252,660 sites for cleansing from its search results.  Facebook posts are the most common source of requests and removals, but many of Google’s own advertising business lines have been caught up in the virtual dragnet.  Not all requests for removal of information are heeded.  If someone posts information of their own volition, Google generally leaves it alone (this prevents them from becoming ade facto identity cleansing business).

This all begs the question – can the internet truly forget?  The limited scope and application of Google’s initial foray into this territory suggests that the answer is no.  While some of the metadata and surrounding information about ourselves can be cleansed, most of the key pieces of data about us are the ones that we ourselves volunteer.  Most of that can be deleted after the fact by users themselves (such as on Facebook), but by that point it has often bled into other sites or goes back so far that obtaining a truly clean slate is difficult to imagine.

It is that volunteer piece which makes the “right to be forgotten” such a tricky question both for internet users and for the companies which serve them.  Social media makes its profits on personal information – there is an intrinsic contract between user and website in which access to a community is granted in exchange for the use of data contained in that community.

Plenty of people have grown tired of the online communities they probably joined on a whim years ago.  Yet few are willing to go completely “off the grid”, let alone take the time to make sure that no trace of their online presence remains.  There are plenty of moribund MySpace pages, Twitter accounts, and Facebook profiles which will happily drift along as long as they are allowed to, unused but also still searchable.  The social contract of information-for-marketing has not been broken, it just lies moribund.

The “right to be forgotten” assumes that there is an intrinsic value in covering your digital tracks.  Clearly there are certain cases where debunked information should be corrected or simply vanish with time, much as court records are expunged after set periods.  But the court’s ruling applies even when people want to erase the normal traces of their lives – expunging their yearbook photos, nullifying their presence at public events, or forgetting long-held friendships.

These are powers which have rarely been afforded to anyone, mostly because they have never before been possible.  There is certainly value in making them possible, but is there value in making forgetfulness convenient?  Aside from a decline in the value of a less-than-complete internet, there may also be an argument that we all lose a little something when our memories of others are purposefully cast aside.

Perhaps the internet is capable of forgetting.  But then might we all forget a piece of ourselves when it does?