Let’s forget the right to be forgotten…

….and talk about the important part of that right in less emotive, less distracting, and more accurate terms. I’m not interested in rewriting or erasing history, I’m not interested in hiding my past – selectively or completely. I am, however, interested in cutting down the amount of data held about me for spurious purposes, and interested in having more control over what commercial enterprises do with the data they have on me. I don’t want a right to be forgotten – I want a right to delete personal data!

I asked a question about this at the Westminster Media Forum a few weeks ago, and gave a presentation on the subject at BILETA in Manchester yesterday – but I think the subject needs more attention. At the Westminster Media Forum, there was a particularly acerbic attack on the right to forgotten by journalist Tessa Mayes, who seemed to think that the right was all about restricting journalists’ rights to report on past events. At BILETA, even though I made the point very directly that the right to delete data isn’t the same as a right to be forgotten, one of the biggest questions I got was actually exactly about how such a right would effectively mess up the historical archive that the internet provides. For me, the right to delete data isn’t like that at all – but calling it a right to be forgotten can easily mislead people into thinking it is.

The right to delete, as I set it out in my presentation (slides of which are available by email), is something that allows individuals control over what data is held about them – but it has a number of specific exceptions, situations where data should be allowed to be kept, regardless of the desire of the individual concerned. They include examples such as medical records, criminal records, electoral rolls and so forth – and appropriate historical archives. All that should be clear – and should prevent the problems that would be associated with a real ‘right to be forgotten’.

The point is, though, that those holding data should need to justify that holding – rather than the individual justify why they would like data to be removed. If there ARE good reasons to hold data, then say so. If not, then the individual should have the right to delete it. The key thing to understand, though, is that BUSINESS reasons – and in particular the fact that you can make money out of holding someone’s data – are not sufficiently strong to override someones right to delete data. Privacy is more important than that.

Forgetting is important too – as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger has described so eloquently and compellingly in his excellent book Delete – but, as Mayer-Schönberger himself suggests, rights may not be the best way to bring it about. Talking about a bald ‘right to be forgotten’ doesn’t really help either the understanding of what is a complex and important issue, or about dealing with the important both practical and ethical issues surrounding rights over personal data.

So let’s forget about the right to be forgotten – but fight strongly for the right to delete personal data.

2 thoughts on “Let’s forget the right to be forgotten…

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