Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on ‚the right to be forgotten‘

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is a Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University. Before assuming this role he was on the faculty of Harvard’s School of Law for ten years and currently sits on advisory boards for corporations including Microsoft and the World Economic Forum.  He has written hundreds of articles and several books including the award winning ‘Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age’. 

Viktor spoke to WebMagazin about issues such as ‚the right to be forgotten‘ and why remembering can be dangerous for society. 

If you would like to hear more from Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, make sure to catch his TYPO3 keynote entitlted Beyond the Hype: The Role of Big Data in a Digital Future.

WebMagazin: In the Guardian you wrote that the EU court ruling in May 2014 was not the dawn of ‚the right to be forgotten‘. How could effective changes be implemented?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: In the Guardian op-ed I suggested that the ECJ ruling had just reaffirmed the EU privacy directive from the 1990s and applied it to the Internet. What it had not done was to settle the question of how we handle forgetting in our society. In the analogue past, forgetting happened practically automatically because it was practically impossible in most cases to remember everything. But in the digital age, due to plummeting storage costs and easy retrieval, the default of forgetting has turned into one of remembering. And if we would prefer more of a balance between forgetting and remembering, we would have to put in place rules how we deal with things that people want to have forgotten.

We already do that with respect to criminal records: entries there get expunged after a certain time has passed. We need to have a wider debate about the mechanisms and processes of societal forgetting. One possibility is to have more tools that enable eventual forgetting, for instance through an expiration date. We have seen dozens of start-ups offering such tools over the last couple of years, but the market remains wider open for new entrants, and we may also need general rules, too.

Have you spoken to policy makers and leaders of tech giants about the ‘expiration date’ concept for data? If so, has this been met with reluctance and why?

Yes, I have. And some are enthusiastic about it, and others are critical. There is no easy line of demarcation. For instance, take Google: there are quite a number of engineers at Google that want more privacy and less remembering. My hope is that over time as many of use experience the curse of remembering first hand, more and more people see the need for forgetting. 

In terms of Internet safety, monitoring and big data, do you think it took someone like Snowden to grasp global attention and bring the issue into mainstream media?

The Snowden revelations certainly contributed to “mainstreaming” Internet safety, security and privacy, but it is, I am sad to say, only one of many incidents that have shown how vulnerable we have become in the digital age due to data leaks. 

You have discussed the possibility of constant monitoring leading to a society where individuals censor their online selves. What steps would you recommend for Internet users hoping to combat this?

The most obvious advice for the individual is of course to not despair, to not give up speaking up. Because robust public discourse is essential for our democratic society. I also recommend making deliberate choices in what digital tools to use, and for what purpose. Facebook may be good to announce one’s wedding, and LinkedIn to let people know about a job change, but for private pictures to share about an evening out with friends, Snapchat and similar tools that have ephemerality – forgetting – built-in may be more suitable. And of course, as society we need to put in place rules that permit, even enable wide participation in public discussions.  

If you had to explain the cons of big data and the importance of privacy to an eight year old what would be the most important messages to emphasise? 

My message would be: that being human is the ability to let go of the past, and grasp the future as something we can actively shape. Big Data abuse threatens to shackle us to our past, and to steal from us our future.

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