When I was a freshman in high school, I read some book that I can’t quite remember the title of, knowing only that it started with the words “You’ll never be remembered like Caesar.”
I hated that thought. Or more accurately, I hated how accurate it was.
I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of being forgotten, in any capacity, really. To me, it always seemed that being lost to time was equivalent to “true death.” And I saw remembrance as the only form of immortality that could be guaranteed. A faux-afterlife unlike any religious teaching that can also be crafted through acts and deeds. Most importantly, though, the memory of others seemed equivalent to proof that an individual meant something when they were alive and afterward.
It’s funny to me now, because the author who wrote that book was right. I’ve completely forgotten his name, his work and why he wrote it, but I still know Caesar. I know how he was born, how he took power and how he died after a brilliantly short burst of life. And somehow, 1900 years on, he survives in my memory while the author (who could still be physically alive) is lost to time in my mind. My great-great-grandparents are also lost to time. And one day, you and I, and everyone who reads this will be as well.
When I first encountered the concept known as the “Right To Be Forgotten” years later, I think I was stuck in that ‘Caesar’ mindset that being remembered could only be a positive thing. The “Right To Be Forgotten,” much like the “Right To Die,” is a term coated in shocking nature. Both run counter to what we’re supposed to want. We’re supposed to want to live, and we’re supposed to want to be remembered, so the two come off as contrarian.
But the right to be forgotten is not an abstract concept or some nihilistic ideal. It’s the right to have data that pertains to you, that you no longer desire to have stored, deleted. And in many places like the European Union and Argentina, parts of the right to be forgotten have been codified into law. This can look like many different things. By some definitions, it only gives you the right to demand the deletion of photos, posts and data about yourself, even if you’ve forgotten the passwords to your accounts. That part is relatively uncontroversial where it is implemented, but still is incompatible with the First Amendment in many cases. Its definition, however, can be extended to points that force us to answer uncomfortable questions about our conception of truth.
The genesis for the right to be forgotten, though, is the practical reality that we’ve gotten too good at remembering ourselves. And in many ways, I think that’s scarier than being forgotten.
The truth is, we don’t have to — or, rather, we can’t — be forgotten now, because our devices won’t let us. The digital landscape has made it so that every moment of your life can be remembered, tracked and acted upon. Every purchase you’ve made, photo you’ve taken and post you’ve uploaded is swirling around in a collection of data that only people much smarter than most can comprehend. But it’s there, and it’ll stay there forever. Because battery lives are longer than our mortal ones.
In many respects this is a good thing: We can remember who we were and who our friends were and who our family was. But the flip side is that when we can remember exactly who we were and exactly what we did for nearly every hour of every day, we often don’t like what that transparent image reveals, or more specifically, we don’t like how narrow the scope of our life’s image becomes.
Thus, the principal consequence of the digital age is that we no longer completely control our self-image, and that singular moments don’t get lost to time. People have their lives ruined by images they’ve taken at inopportune times or posts they made 12 years ago, and most worryingly, by articles written about the lowest moment in a person’s life. Because now these moments don’t go away. Pictures don’t fade and digital archives don’t wither, and this causes people’s futures to get trapped by moments from their past. Moments that 50 years ago would have been a blip; Moments that “The Right to Be Forgotten” offers a solution to.
But where the right gets intriguing is when it’s expanded. By some definitions, the right to be forgotten demands that your image and data be removed when you remove your consent from its broadcast, even if it’s in the hands of others. This is the law in the European Union, and it runs through search engines. In the EU, sites like Google now must offset a request form where people can ask that a search for an individual’s name does not yield the photos or websites that they wish to be forgotten. The pages and photos still exist, but aside from some exceptions, they no longer will be associated with the name; they will be exterminated from “Search Results” pages.
The final iteration of the right extends these practices of alteration to the media. It requires publications and media companies to acknowledge the right to be forgotten, removing names and specific requested references to individuals that are either embarrassing or detrimental to their image if there is practical purpose for that information to be stored.
Originally, in the EU, media outlets were exempt from the “Right to Be Forgotten” and didn’t have to offer any removal options. But in Hurbain v. Belgium (2021), a case in the European Court of Human Rights, this understanding changed. The court found that a Belgian paper had to remove the name of a man who was both responsible for and convicted of killing another in a car crash. More or less, it found that the right to be forgotten could trump the media’s right to report on objective truth.
And while that sounds reprehensible, there is practical value in giving people the right to escape shame. In the case of that man who killed another in a car crash, it could have been purely accidental, and he’d already been punished by the courts. He served whatever social punishment the courts deemed to be fair retribution. But it’s likely that the punishment extended far past any jail time. Because for decades, every new person he met and every job he applied for that looked him up saw him as defined by one singular moment. His lowest moment.
Thus, we arrive at a tug-of-water between the ethics of objectivity and the ethics of forgetting for the sake of preserving one’s integrity. Is having your entire existence defined for eternity by the one horrible thing more true than simply letting yourself be forgotten?
The right to be forgotten has often been referred to as “the right to be forgiven,” and I think that’s a more accurate name. There is immense benefit to a faithful recollection of the past. I believe that truth must be objective and stored. But by not letting people’s image change, by holding it hostage in one moment and freezing it there, the truth gets diluted. Because people do change despite it being hard to see.
When I was younger, I used to play this game in the shower where I would close my eyes and imagine the person I had been just a few years earlier. And inevitably, I’d get embarrassed. I’d remember all the shortcomings, idiosyncrasies and moronic attempts to be cool, and I’d be mortified. But then I’d imagine myself at present and try to guess what the things I’d be embarrassed of in the future were. I’d think about the popular phrases I’d parrot and fashions I touted and recognize that I’d strongly dislike those aspects of who I presently was in the future.
But the thing is, only I have to remember those things about myself. The version of me that I’d look back at with shame and disappointment was given the ability to sunset and fade away. I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like to have that past version of myself be the one that defined my image for the rest of my future, but I know it’d be awful. I’d feel trapped, because if every improvement I made to myself was erased by a now inaccurate image of who I was, why would I have incentive to try to become better?
I think the “Right to Be Forgotten” raises the genuine question of why we desire the truth. Do we value objectivity because it leads us to better understanding our human condition? Or do we desire the truth because we feel we need to record shame? I honestly don’t know.
I don’t think that the right to be forgotten can — or should — be legal precedent in the United States, as it is in the EU. But I think there needs to be honest and thoughtful conversation on how we use and preserve media.
Since 2018, Cleveland.com, a northeastern Ohio journal, has been experimenting with the right to be forgotten because they believe it’s an ethical practice. They’re no longer posting mugshots with stories and they’re allowing individuals to request their names be removed from stories about minor offenses or those that have since been expunged. And with it, people are being freed from their pasts. Former addicts, vandals and petty criminals are no longer defined by their mugshot. They can get jobs again. They can move on.
I think a system like Cleveland.com’s should be the future of the right to be forgotten. This right can’t and shouldn’t be law, but benevolence in reporting should be pondered. Because papers like the one I write for have the power to define the average person’s image for eternity, and I think that that power should be wielded with an understanding of the impact it can have.
The right to be forgotten is really the right to escape eternal shame, and I think I’m equally in favor of it, and deeply, deeply unnerved by it.
The Michigan Daily has no policy on the right to be forgotten, and sometimes I wonder what I’ll think about these articles that I’ve written 30 years from now. I could look back at this article, abhor everything I ever wrote and desperately wish to take it down. And that’s something that genuinely scares me, but the implication of erasing who I once was also seems wrong.
Regardless of whether the right terrifies or comforts you, you should understand that one day you might be the one begging to be forgotten. Because today, we could all be remembered like Caesar. But when confronted by that possibility, I think it’s almost as terrifying as the prospect of being forgotten entirely.
Statement Columnist Charlie Pappalardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.