The right to not know or be known


During my high school years, I worked in a public library. At the time, the thing with the big screen and the control knob that people waited in line to use was a microfiche machine. Photocopies were 15 cents a page. It wasn't a very well-publicized fact, but in its basement was an incinerator. The primary purpose of that incinerator had at one time been to burn books, but during my time there it was verboten to either use it or mention it. Once or twice, I imagine, Fahrenheit 451 found its way into the thing.

The books that at one time were regularly burned were donations--tens of thousands of bound editions per month, consisting of romance novels, great literature, other cities' phone directories, and on occasion, the most disgusting material. Of course items in the latter category were turned over to the authorities, but the story I was told is that somebody inevitably brought them back because, well, the library had the best incinerator. And while the Police Dept. also had an incinerator, it was verboten to either use it or mention it.

I hated the idea of books--with ideas and literature and great words--being burned. At 17, I wrote a poem about the ideas in each of the books being given life and form, only to wait in a long queue to be disintegrated at the end.

But the truth was that as intellectuals passed away and their non-intellectual heirs disposed of all the books for which they had no more room in their liquor cabinets, the library received thousands of donations per day. And there was literally nothing else that could be done with them besides sending them to landfills. Many were, ironically, the Holy Bible, often with the Gideon inscription, indicating they were taken from hotels. The library system collected donated bibles, specifically to be distributed to other folks, including churches and some hotels. It occurred to me once that if we were to put watermarks in the donated bibles we gave out, we could determine how many weeks it took to get them back.

We as a society produce far more "content"--some of it bibles, some of it poetry, and perhaps too much of it "tech news"--than we know what to do with. The invention of the web disrupted the de facto recycling initiative of many libraries. There is a perception that everything we say or do online is permanent, and there is no more false perception on the planet--not even the perception, held by someone, somewhere that Vladimir Putin is a great leader. Because of the web, a countless number of unnamed disposal systems for unwanted content were rendered unnecessary, at least insofar as publications after 1995 are concerned.

The recent enactment in the European Union of the "right to be forgotten" law fails to take into account just how much of everything "published" in this most temporary of formats, already is. Still, there's a good argument to be made that an individual's personal data belongs to that person, and the acquisition of that data should only take place with the person's permission. The legal corollary of that argument is that any information produced through the dissemination of illicit data--acquired from its owner without permission--should be terminated.

If you wrote a law like that, then a huge chunk of actual journalism would be illegal. The idea of news is the rapid dissemination of a recently unknown bit of information. Not all journalism can be done with permission. ("Dear Pentagon: May I borrow these? Love, Daniel E.")

It took only minutes after Google began complying with the European Commission's directive to "forget" information in its databases about people who sincerely wish to be forgotten for true journalists like Danny Sullivan to notice that news was being un-newsed. Now Google will dispute you on this, but Google is not the web. Articles about forgotten people will continue to exist for as long as someone supplies power to their servers. But so long as Google is forced by law to omit these people's names from its search results, they'll be more difficult to find.

For about a week. Set your stopwatches and let's see how long this takes: Inevitably, someone will begin compiling a database of who and what has become forgotten, and that database will be the next WikiLeaks.

For the European Commission to presume that the existing data about individuals on Google or anywhere else can truly be controlled by those individuals, is to misunderstand the nature of information. Like the donations pile at a public library, there are too many things that people try to get rid of that you can't get rid of. The very idea that someone out there does not want you to know something, gives that something a value it did not have otherwise. Amid all the great things of natural value worth remembering, at least for a while, those "forgotten" elements may eventually accrue more value than they're worth. - SF3