Once upon a time, a friend of mine was given a difficult task. It seemed that a high-ranking individual at his place of work had a Facebook page made for him, without his knowledge. It was unclear who had created the profile (the individual suspected the teenage son of a colleague) so no one knew what the password was. Without a password, the profile could not be cancelled. My friend and his team of damage control gnomes needed delete the profile swiftly. Not only was this a person of great importance in a major city, but the profile picture was something that could have been perceived as just a little bit embarrassing and incriminating.
Because they had no password and no access to the person who allegedly made this Facebook profile, my friend and his co-workers had to jump through a substantial number of hoops put in place by the popular social network site. According to academics in the slowly-growing discipline of online privacy, this very story is the United States’ internet culture in a nutshell: everyone has a right to see anyone else’s dirty laundry, and if we have to take it down, we’re not going to make it easy.
The reason that a book like Meg Leta Jones’s Ctrl+Z: The Right to Be Forgotten was written is because American citizens hang in a precarious internet culture where it’s rather simple to post embarrassing things online, but it can be nearly impossible to get them removed. It’s simplistic to suggest that we should refrain from posting embarrassing things online; works like Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed have already demonstrated that plenty of vultures lurk around Twitter and Facebook, waiting to pounce on any ill-conceived joke. My friend and his co-workers may have been able to save the skin of this particular individual, but a story like this walks a thin line between anonymity (of the one who made the fake profile) and professional ruination of the person it portrayed.
The first chapter of Ctrl+Z praises the European Union for having the foresight to lay the groundwork for a common citizen’s legal right to privacy. Whether or not members of the EU saw the complications of social networking arriving on the horizon (unlikely, given the dates of the examples Jones cites), the citizens and governments of Europe clearly value their privacy a great deal. Even when Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile president Max Mosley was caught up in an allegedly Nazi-decorated sex party scandal, the general public seemed to give him an unspoken pass as he successfully sued the newspaper that printed the incriminating photos.
But I don’t need to tell you that Mosley’s story would have gone down much, much differently in the United States. The Supreme Court, as Jones points out in the following chapter, hasn’t been terribly consistent in how it interprets an abstract concept such as “human dignity”. In America, the courts are close to impotent as we the general public revel in newsworthy crash-and-burn scenarios. The idea of the self-made individual who recovers after being humiliated online, sadly, does not jive with the new voyeurism that the internet now provides. Any attempt to protect the embarrassed is perceived as censorship, denying the public the “right to know”. A recent challenge to that assumption that may offer some hope (but occurred well after the publication of this book): Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit against Gawker.
Jones initially sets up Ctrl+Z as a platform to discuss ways in which to move forward so that we may all have a right to be forgotten, if we so choose. Aside from the concerns of censorship, Jones acknowledges that the affluent have an easier time shooting an email off to, say, Reputation.com than others. If you want any of your bad stuff to be scrubbed from the internet, you have to pay for it. Then again, scrubbing something away completely is a privilege that few enjoy.
The best that a company such as Reputation.com can do is to simply overwhelm the blemishes with a large amount of positive content. Jones briefly acknowledges a group of well-meaning people who simply think that we will all outgrow this foolishness and that we, the accusers, will learn to place the ugly content uploaded by the accused in its proper time and context. Jones is being generous when she calls it a “nice idea”, because people know all too well that altruistically-inclined social change just takes too long. So what can we do in the meantime while we all wait to grow up and mature?
Good question. If there’s one thing that Ctrl+Z has going against it, it’s that it’s a highly academic book written by an academic for academics; thus, it reads rather insular and dry. Still, it advocates that online privacy is a pressing issue, but the United States government just keeps procrastinating on the matter. As important as the issue is, it just doesn’t appear to be on many people’s minds—yet.
While we wait, Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, puts internet shaming on the table, squarely in front of you. The case studies in this book, aside from that of Jonah Lehrer’s, could easily be you. Jones and her book, after citing many similar cases and articles, puts internet shaming in your local law library. In this light, the issue of internet shaming becomes as cold and distant as tax codes. This can be perceived as a good thing, since it gives the Right to Be Forgotten considerable legal weight. At the same time, it doesn’t make it very accessible to the layman.
Instead of grabbing a shovel and digging for some clear solutions, however, Ctrl+Z is content to prowl the perimeter of the dig site with a garden spade. From the third chapter on, Jones waxes metaphysical on the essence of privacy, the internet as garden-variety ephemera, and an ever-shifting idea of information “stewardship”. If we want to get to the heart of the Right to Be Forgotten, Jones merely suggests we bone-up on the privacy laws already passed in Europe.
Jones concludes with this cautionary sentence: “Before you delete your next Facebook post, tweet, blog, comment, email, set of cookies, or chat, consider whether you are destroying history or exercising your power to participate in your digital identity.” If anything, as things stand now, my aforementioned friend has job security for the forseable future.
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