There’s likely no such thing as the right to be forgotten. So why are we talking about it?
In the sixth grade, I opportunistically backstabbed one of my friends; the story reads like an appendix to a middle-school The Prince. I’d had a crush on a girl for three long weeks (give or take), and one of my two best friends, we’ll call him Phil, started ‘going out’ with her almost at random, I think after one of those weekend field trips which always seemed to break apart cliques, form new ones, and breathe fresh life into the daily math-science-history routine. The world doesn’t always work justly, and all the time, energy, and thought I’d expended quickly became nothing; like a bad poker player with a losing hand but too much in the pot to fold, I redoubled my efforts. I went behind Phil’s back, first to our other friend, asking for his allegiance should I move against Phil. In morning break, he masked his indignation and told me it was a terrible idea: in the last minutes of lunch break, I’m hearing a cornered girl awkwardly explaining why she won’t break up with Phil for me.
Despite the frivolity, I feel a sharp pang of shame whenever I remember that story. I know people who, when similarly in the wrong, can easily convince themselves the episode never happened; often, I envy them. Because who doesn’t want to be forgotten at times? Often, though, even when we forget, other people’s memories bear witness against us, like a time capsule preserving, in a shroud of indifference, their own record of what happened. Years later, we relive some episode with a spouse or child or sibling, and our version of things, corrupted by bias and self-interest over the years, looks pathetic next to the other’s immaculate memory. The record of our wrongdoings we can gradually wear away in our memory for years; it’s the external record which pins us down: no exit.
In courthouse archives or at the local credit firm, you could find out how much money Bill owes, and to whom; you could research criminal convictions and civil liabilities, liens, judgments, acquittals. The town gossip mill kept more personal histories intact, and the worst offenses would merit that look of surprise, thin lips and furrowed brows, for years or decades as you slipped into the pew in the back Sunday morning. Still, some time in AA and the convictions are gradually forgiven by prospective employers; still, move on to another town in another state, and while you may not be accepted (what drove her away?), at least there’ll be some measure of peace in a clean slate.
What happens when the record of our wrongs becomes depersonalized, utterly objective, and easily accessible to the world? Really, this time, no exit. Because if the facts are objective and depersonalized, then mitigating circumstances don’t follow the offense onto the page; doubt doesn’t follow them onto the page; a changed demeanor doesn’t follow, either.
This brings us to the case of Mario Costeja González, a man who had been forced to sell his property as a result of tax debt, and who doesn’t want us to remember that. Wanting Google to eliminate search results (query: Mario Costeja González) which linked to the debt episode, he petitioned the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, and won. Much of the subsequent discussion has centered on the ‘right to be forgotten’, admittedly a concept dear to the human heart. Privacy advocates have seen the ruling as confirmation of this right, and free-speech advocates see it as the beginning of a dangerous slide into censorship.
Regardless of whether the ruling was appropriate, if there is a ‘right to be forgotten’, it’s an artificial convention at best, and at worst, it’s non-existent. How can we prove there’s such a thing as the right to be forgotten? What’s it grounded on? Can science demonstrate the existence of such a right, can some universal philosophy show a legitimate basis for it, can political theory prove it? In terms of some natural, inalienable human entitlement, the answer to all these questions is no. In terms of an artificial, contingent convention guaranteed by social contract or constitution or legislation, the answer is being debated, and different countries have developed different answers.
For Christianity, a right to be forgotten should probably be viewed with skepticism. ‘Right’ implies something owed to an individual, something we possess unconditionally. In the case of being forgotten, the word ‘right’ risks rooting the erasure of the record against us in ourselves. In the economy of salvation, it upsets the balance between humanity and God, implying that humankind in its natural state, without incarnation or atonement, can lay some kind of claim to absolution of its own resources. ‘Vertically’ – that is, in the relationship between ourselves and God – such a right must be rejected for the newness and undeservedness of the “love that covers a multitude of sins” to be preserved.
We live in world in which Christianity’s moral code and promise of regeneration have outlived its core doctrine, at least in cultural discourse. I think of Georgia legislator Lynn Westmoreland, who waxed eloquent about the importance of the ten commandments, sponsored a bill requiring their display in both chambers of Congress, and struggled to name three when asked to list them in an interview. We like the Judeo-Christian set of commands, which help point us toward righteousness; we’re often less eager to hear the part about our inability to save ourselves. When the rules linger past the means of fulfilling them, despair or deluded self-righteousness ensues. And not only have we had to reinvent sanctification – often-hollow religious form for conservatives, smug enlightened humanism for dems, self-improvement and upward mobility for all – but now we also, unsurprisingly, find ourselves having to reinvent forgiveness.
On the one hand, this turn toward forgiveness is a welcome one. Many of those who might’ve judged González as a wastrel on the basis of a common mistake years ago, probably do so unwarrantedly. In a world where one DUI charge can ruin a bright college graduate’s career prospects, or one drug possession charge can bar a homeless person from public housing for life, where one scandal can shame a politician for decades… in such a climate, we need forgetting; we need erasure. And so we need a secular concept of forgiveness and forgetting.
Don’t expect it to be perfect, though. The legal artifice currently receiving so much media attention has, in its very terms, a contradiction: a right to be forgotten, passive voice. How can we be entitled to something which depends wholly on others? Within Christianity’s ethical framework, others, to be sure, certainly have an ethical responsibility to forgive, and perhaps even to forget, our sins. But the concept of ‘right’ roots something in us which can only come from outside: Luther’s term, verbum externum, holds.
A right to be forgotten will never work perfectly for another reason, one Google and its allies have cited: people need information. And though we may resist it, it’s best for others to have information about us; better for them to know the real us than some edited avatar whose manifold achievements litter a LinkedIn profile, but whose failures have been expunged. People who need information will just exert more effort, spend more money, and dig deeper than page 1 of Google search results.
On what basis should anyone be forgotten? Back to sixth grade: if I’d told Phil, whom I’d unsuccessfully backstabbed, that my scheme that day had a right to be forgotten, it certainly would’ve precluded any immediate forgiveness. When people do wrong, we don’t want them to invoke their right to forgiveness; we want an unqualified apology. After conferring for a couple hours, Phil and our other friend told me they’d decided not to mention it ever again, and pretend the day never happened. On what basis? Our friendship, to them, outweighed the demands of justice.
Perhaps we need, until we come up with something better, a right to be forgotten. A better basis for forgetting would forgiveness: it is not right which hides our sins, but instead “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Weakness forgotten may be a stronger desire, but love amidst weakness is the more fundamental one. It is because love outweighs justice, and he no longer desires to remember them, that God forgets our sins.