If we find ourselves able to look back on anything from the last twenty years to identify as something that forever altered the landscape of culture, and even of national and international law, that thing will be the Internet. I’ve found it a point of interest, as I’m sure have many of you, that culture and legal systems, two things that historically experience slow and incremental changes, have experienced profound difficulty keeping pace with the change that the Internet is causing to occur at such a rapid pace. The number of technological changes that my generation has witnessed in its lifetime is largely unparalleled in history. But, before I start to sound like I’m writing a textbook, let me say why this is on my mind this week.
The reason was this article from the New York Times that ran earlier in the week, discussing how European citizens want the ability to delete personal information from the web, finding themselves deeply disturbed at how easy it is to discover facts (at times unsavory, as they are) with a few keystrokes, regardless of what that might mean for a person’s reputation. The article discusses how American philosophy departs from this, considering the right to speak the truth and one’s opinions far more valuable than the privacy of someone else.
I’m not sure where I fall on the continuum of which is most important; I think likely somewhere in between. As much as America likes to malign the UK as a surveillance state, the amount of information we are compelled by law to have on our person simply in the form of legal ID would be considered (as I understand it) an egregious breach of privacy in the UK. Traffic cameras have nothing on the fact that, in America, there is no expectation of privacy in a public place. I’m not applying a value judgement to that, simply making the observation.
Stieg Larsson’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, raises interesting questions in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and its sequels. As a master hacker, she can quickly discover anything wrong that anyone has ever done if it was ever recorded on the Internet. While Salander is a fictional character, she represents a very real skill set in existence today. And, as we know, the fact that we all are extremely dis-inhibited about what we post online (or are friends with someone who is dis-inhibited about posting things about their friends online), means that our poor judgement and mistakes will end up recorded on the Internet at some point. Its inevitable. As medical records and legal records move into the cloud, the sheer amount of information about us that can be discovered through potentially malicious intent will become even more of a frightening probability.
The questions that Larsson raises with Salander’s character, at least in part, revolve around forgiveness. The Western legal system is all about punishment, and very little about grace. How much more will this mindset be perpetuated when all of our mistakes are available at a few keystrokes? As the question was posed in a discussion I once heard, is forgiveness possible in a world where forgetting is impossible?
The Times Article points out that there is history on the side of the much older European states that America simply hasn’t experienced. Specifically, the article discusses regimes such as Hitler’s that held onto the skeletons in individuals’ closets forever should the need to ensure their compliance with the government ever arise. As frightening a concept as this is for a government, I’m left frozen in fear of this information in the hands of private enterprise, whose sole motivation may be corporate profit.
At the same time, I’m left considering the articles’ points about lawsuits against Google for its street view project, which many in Europe consider a gross privacy breach, and that I think is an incredible convenience. Similarly, I like that ads in sidebars can be customized to me. I think that this is an innovation, a step forward. I wonder, though, at what cost? I also wonder about counting that cost, and ending up in a position such as Massachusetts, where recording the police performing arrests has resulted in legal consquences. This, I fear, sets up an atmosphere where abuse of power is inevitable.
As information has achieved a fluidity that we have never before seen in history, privacy has accompanied it in achieving a fluidity of its own. I’m both amazed at this, and concerned. I recognize the concept of personal responsibility; that is, I recognize that anything on the Internet can be seen by anyone and stays there forever, and that you shouldn’t post it if you don’t want that to happen. I also, however, recognize that humans make mistakes, and those mistakes shouldn’t haunt us forever if we are to believe at all in forgiveness and grace. Certainly, they shouldn’t haunt our friends or colleagues who might have chosen to not post something, but which we have posted without knowing their wishes. I think that there has to be room to take back our mistakes, to have a record, as it were, expunged. Even our punishment-driven legal system makes space for that. As it, and our culture, rush to keep abreast of the explosion of innovation around us, I think that the places that we entrust with our data should make space for that, as well.
Photo Attribution: GothCandy