Close your eyes for a minute, and “imagine the worst thing you have ever done, your most shameful secret. Imagine that cringe-inducing incident somehow has made its way online.” You no longer have control over that tiny digital trace of your incident, which is now stored online as a picture, text or video. A prospective employer, current partner or future grandchild might get hold of it. Your life could change for the worse in the blink of an eye.
Happily for European Union citizens, at least, they have a new weapon to defend their privacy against the increased discoverability and the stubborn persistence of digital information on the web: the “right to erasure”, thanks to the EU Data Protection Regulation, drafted in 2012 and finally adopted in April 2016. Ctrl+Z, whose title refers to the keyboard shortcut for the “undo” command, is the first book to offer a comprehensive, engaging socio-legal perspective on the controversial “right to be forgotten”, as it is commonly known. This right regulates (online) data privacy in the EU, imposing on “data controllers” such as Google the legal duty to delete portions of information upon a user’s request, when the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the latter have been infringed. It intersects the key social values of identity, privacy, memory and reputation as they are redefined in the digital age. While this has been hailed by many as one of the high points in the protection of digital privacy in the 21st century, it has also been criticised as restricting freedom of expression and access, and of being outright unworkable in its technical implementation. In fact, it requires the compliance of other players for its enforcement, including the US, where such rights are not recognised.
Here, Meg Leta Jones delves beneath the legal surface of the “right to be forgotten” debate to reveal the complex ecosystem of the big-data revolution and the business models of its key actors. Digital redemption and digital reinvention, she argues, might be dynamic concepts that are culturally entrenched and thus hard to pin down – but, notwithstanding differences on the two sides of the Atlantic, these innovative ideas have potential. Rather than a question of information permanence – in fact, online data are rather fragile and short-lived – it is a matter of information stewardship, which is to say control over the management of one’s own data.
In language accessible to non-specialists, enriched by an interdisciplinary outlook and a plethora of examples and case law, Jones draws on legal cultures, international feasibility and interoperability and detailed information about the information life cycle, and argues that both approaches, favouring and opposing the right to be forgotten, take only a partial view on the matter.
For readers on this side of the ocean, however, Jones’ approach may seem unusual, as she describes the EU jurisdiction through the lens of the US legal system, foregrounding national legal culture. Furthermore, linking the issue of digital redemption to the question of human forgiveness is a moralising argument that may not find many buyers on this side of the pond.
Stefania Milan is assistant professor of new media and digital culture, University of Amsterdam, and principal investigator of the DATACTIVE project, which explores the politics of big data. She is author of Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change (2013, 2016).
Ctrl+Z: The Right to Be Forgotten
By Meg Leta Jones
New-York-University Press, 256pp, £24.99
Published 29 March 2016