The Right to Remember: A Speculative Community Informatics approach to “the Right to Be Forgotten”

Posted on July 5, 2014

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The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in a recent and widely discussed decision is requiring Google to consider individuals’ requests to remove links that they say infringe on their privacy. Much of the subsequent analysis and commentary has focused on what this means from the perspective of Google’s activities as the de facto provider of what has become the global collective memory–both pro and con.

Some are arguing that this is a good thing and that individuals (and companies?) have the right to have certain things they would prefer to not be available in casual searches online “forgotten” (suppressed). Others argue the opposite, i.e. that this is a slippery slope and without clear guidelines it is not clear where this right to “forget” will stop and the public’s “right to know” about an individual’s (or corporate’s) history will begin.

I think it is well to reflect a bit on the (likely) origins of memory (Adaptive Memory) and its uses and what that might tell us about memory and forgetting in a technology enabled world.

Memory presumably developed as a survival mechanism providing our pre-history ancestors with the means to capture knowledge and retain it for re-use in other times and places as a basis for survival–remembering what foods made them sick and which did not, which paths led to new and productive hunting grounds and which ones led into dead ends and potential traps from wild animals or antagonistic neighbours.

But of course as we know, memory is a two edged sword–on the one hand it can help in survival by directing current action but it can also be destructive by misdirecting current action and understanding. Knowing that a particular path leads across a river in one season and into an unfordable stream in another is an equally necessary survival tool. Knowing that a plant is poisonous when fresh, but medicinal when dried and mixed with another plant becomes the stock in trade of the healer and the source of his or her status in the tribe.

But in these contexts memory was specific and for the most part physically and locationally constrained. Our ancestors had knowledge about their circumstances and their environments, about their fellow tribe members and occasionally the members of neighboring tribes but not much memory or knowledge beyond that.

In practice memory and the knowledge that it represented and provided was a communal/collective resource–something shared within the community, passed on from within community and made practical and the basis of action (or reaction) within the community. Only very occasionally as when tribes began to develop more elaborate and wide ranging governance structures and trading networks would memory go much beyond the community, the local, the tribe. And even there the memory or knowledge would be constrained through its need to be passed along from elder to elder, trader to trader.

The capacity to store memory in the form of writing to a degree liberated memory from its severe locational and temporal constraints by allowing memories stored in written form to be moved by means of some physical storage medium (stone, clay, ultimately paper) from one location to another and over time. But this of course, also had certain constraints of physical degradation as the storage medium would erode or decay; and from the simple cost in energy and wealth of storing memories in this form, moving the medium from place to place and then of physically accessing/searching the medium for the required information.

But all of these limitations of course, have now been overcome with digital memory, digital storage, Internet access and so on. And as a collective resource for helping all of us as humanity to respond effectively to our many challenges this is almost certainly a huge and highly desirable step forward.

However, as well, the dark side of this is the same as the bright side with all such information/memories being available anytime, anywhere and with effectively no or almost no cost to access, leaving us as individuals and as societies vulnerable to the misuse of infinite memory in the same way as we are the beneficiaries (e.g. what Snowden showed about the NSA’s drive for “total information awareness”).

What is being overlooked however, in this current discussion is the original functions and benefits of memory which as already noted were anchored in the actions and specific contexts of the local, of communities where this knowledge could and was put into effective action and where memories if destructive would quickly be erased from the collective pool.

I should premise what I am about to present by indicating that I have no idea if or whether there is a practical means for implementation/  However, given the commitment of the Community Informatics community in it’s Declaration of an Internet for the Common Good (and following Snowden’s revelations substantial elements of the broader ICT/informatics community) towards a decentralized Internet where control over information and even infrastructure resides in decentralized communities rather than in highly centralized corporate or government controlled repositories, perhaps it is worth thinking about/discussing.

The meaning and usefulness (or counter-usefulness as in negative effects) of memories are based in particular contexts. The ownership of those memories and the bringing into effectiveness of certain memories through time is equally anchored in specific contexts and their attendant, owner communities. That is, the contexts where memories gain value and significance as the basis for action are in fact based in or derived from the communities of those for whom these contexts are significant and who in some sense “own” or populate or invigorate those contexts.

Similarly the fear or expectation of a negative consequence from a “memory” is based in these contexts and ultimately resides with the communities who “own” these contexts. The fear of a negative consequence of a memory concerning a bankruptcy or a mild youthful indiscretion or a negative assessment by one’s (at the time) peers is a fear of how the context/community will respond to this information should it re-appear or be brought to conscious awareness/visibility.

And equally, the significance of this information for current actions within that context i.e. whether such information is of current value such as to guide current action is based on current understandings within those contexts or communities. Some information clearly is dated and should be “forgotten” while other information does or at least could have current significance within a particular context (an early conviction for child molestation for example).

Of course, many of these current significant contexts/communities are virtual — based on online connections rather than physically embodied ones (issues concerning plagiarism within academic or journalistic contexts for example).

The European Court has now rendered a verdict that under some circumstances there is a “right to be forgotten” but the Court did not provide direction as to how this right was to be implemented and simply handed the problem back to the now omnipresent memory platform/enabler Google to figure this out. The result has been the somewhat chaotic situation which now prevails with many arguing that there is an equal right to have access to full information/”free expression” as there is the right to be forgotten.

But perhaps one way out of this dilemma is to begin a process of thinking through the particulars of the various contexts/communities of the various types of memories whose access is enabled by Google and empowering these to determine within their contexts what information needs to be remembered and what information can be allowed to be forgotten. (Giving communities this responsibility rather than corporations or institutions should go some way to ensure that those acts and events which those in authority on occasion will go to some lengths to ensure are “forgotten” in fact, are retained as “memories”–including the holocaust(s), acts of genocide against minorities, the abuses of children and others.)

Precisely how this might be accomplished I’m unclear since Google is required to respond to the particular in the form of individual requests (and has further enabled this process through developing an individual request based set of procedures) however, perhaps a rethinking of these processes focusing less on the individual or perhaps using the individual as a means to identify the broader and more general issues and then turning the matter of developing rules and procedures over to frameworks reflecting these larger contexts/communities.

However, I am certain that having communities determine what needs to be remembered and what can allowed to be forgotten makes rather more sense and is more in keeping with the history of memory and the opportunities and value that memory provides us with, than turning those decisions over to anonymous and faceless Google administrators.

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