“Data, Privacy, and Personhood: A (Re-)view of Meg Leta Jones’s Ctrl+Z: The Right to Be Forgotten”

“Data, Privacy, and Personhood: A (Re-)view of Meg Leta Jones’s Ctrl+Z: The Right to Be Forgotten”

In music scholarship, the idea of infinite repeatability is one of the characteristics that separates recorded performance from “live” performance. For consumers, this means that one can (almost) always return to a favorite recording and play it as many times as one finds edifying, whereas the concert hall, opera house, or most any other performance venue does not come with a rewind option. For performers, this difference plays out as what I term infinite recordability—the ability to have as many takes of an entire work or any excerpt of it in order to capture the best one. Having the ability to seemingly always go back to whatever a performer did on a given date is the source of immense risk and reward. Some performers issue recordings that they later wish they could un-issue. To a certain point, this is somewhat possible. Once a recording enters the digital world, its permanence becomes more certain. One needs only to search in YouTube for “operatic disasters” to find a multitude of moments that some of the world’s most acclaimed singers (Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo included) would most likely prefer to forget. Not all singers have the cultural cachet to survive these black-pearl moments and those that do have to find ways to counterbalance them; none of these moments appear to be poised to slip into the abyss of forgotten-ness.

These examples highlight in the musical realm the crux of the matter that Meg Leta Jones addresses in Ctrl+Z: The Right to Be Forgotten: challenges of information access and use in the age of the internet’s knowledge longevity. After Jones’s engaging opening salvo, which contains a plethora of examples from the many sides of this issue, she looks somewhat rather longingly across the pond to how European nations have tried to balance the right to know against the right to privacy. Jones characterizes the European approach as “Forgetting Made Easy.” Using various legal cases as examples, she demonstrates how the right to privacy is seemingly inextricable from the right to personhood, and that these individual rights carry more weight than others’ rights to know or disseminate knowledge about someone. In Jones’s estimation, if there is a European sense of Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the basic inalienable human rights, it comes with a heavy, though welcome caveat of never at the expense of another’s personhood. By placing what are, in essence, statutes of limitations on the kinds of unfavorable digital data people or corporations can use, most European countries enable what Jones calls digital redemption. For someone with a non-violent criminal record, and who has paid his or her debt to society, after a certain number of years, even the mention of incarceration becomes a potential violation against personhood. The undergirding premise seems to be that once a criminal has satisfied punishments levied by the legal system, he or she is entitled to resume life as if no crime had ever occurred, and society is, at least in public or professional life required to forgive and forget.

As favorable a picture of European laws Jones paints, her portrayal of digital privacy and personhood in the USA is correspondingly grim on the surface. Jones points to outgrowths of first amendment protections on the freedom of expression (particularly as it pertains to speech and the press) as an overwhelming antithesis to any sense of a right to privacy in the United States. Even so, Jones is careful not to castigate American culture regarding information and forgetting. Rather, she describes the American approach to addressing the right to be forgotten as digital reinvention. In this model, there are legal precedents for punishing misusers of information, but only in limited instances. The press is almost immune from any remonstrance, and extant laws punish only disclosures of specific and extreme content. Any other legal recourse would have to take the form of harassment or cyber-bullying charges, which have been notoriously difficult to prove and prosecute. Often, nefarious or neglectful uses of private information leave victims in need of repairing their reputations. However, one trademark method for this is to attempt to bury negative information under mountains of positive information. This has numerous issues, of which Jones cites the pressure to fill the web with positive information in order to re-privatize sensitive information “is more like strong-arming uses than empowering them with privacy.” (75) The remainder of this chapter addresses measures that have been attempted, and acknowledges the central challenge necessary for digital rehabilitation – the inordinate difficulty, if not impossibility, of encoding the complexity of human forgiveness into legal or digital fora. Despite these challenges, Jones does not dismiss technology’s possible roles in digital forgiveness and rehabilitation, instead cautioning that the process requires more than a singularly technological effort.

Though Jones exposits conceptions of privacy in Europe and the USA equally, she leaves little room for doubt about her vision for how to work toward digital privacy by embracing digital redemption rather than digital reinvention. With so much information about any topic or person readily available in the digital world, and with so little legal or cultural recourse to address negligent or malevolent uses of data about others, Jones strongly and rightly asserts that safeguarding personhood must play a, if not the, primary role in data usage. The reasoning for this idea as an underlying principle is that, too often in modern America, information about a person becomes that person’s lasting identity, especially when it is information attesting to human imperfection. In such instances, humans become commodified objects. Data, whether reflecting the positive or negative aspects of humanity is ultimately a testament to humans having thought, acted, related, and existed.

The principles relating to ethical data generation, stewardship, and usage, are not the exclusive responsibilities of researchers, but also of the institutions and infrastructures that facilitate humanistic inquiry. As ethics clarifying acceptable and unacceptable data behavior continue to emerge and coalesce into guidelines and practices, the entities finding value in any data need to have a voice in the conversation. In other words, institutional review boards—perhaps the most visible moderators of data practice—are not and cannot be solely accountable for the kind of cultural shift around data stewardship for which Jones advocates. Mechanisms by which data subjects can effectively exercise the right to be forgotten are necessary is only one step towards a “harmonized balance between privacy and expression, (189). One such mechanism is for data developers, curators, stewards, users, etc. to build data tethering, much like a digital paper trail, into their work. Doing so not only makes it far easier for data subjects to regain control of data about them, but also facilitates the formulation of much needed legal precedents and practices in the ever-evolving realm of cyberlaw. Furthermore, tethering will facilitate engagement across any number of geo-political boundaries by legal experts and digital scholars, pushing issues of data, privacy, and personhood into a much-needed global conversation.

               In conclusion, I return to the opening example of operatic singers who have less-than-perfect nights onstage preserved in any number of digital formats. In one context, the nights any performer would like to forget and be forgotten do attest to the impossibility of humans to be mechanical, which is a central character of what it means to be human. Some performers are gracious enough to admit as much. In another context, such occurrences can be detrimental to one’s professional or personal aspirations. As such, that “the right to be forgotten is about providing some kind of recourse for information that we have tried so hard but failed to keep to ourselves” (191) cannot simply be an ‘erase’ button for anything a person wishes out of existence. Instead, the right to be forgotten, like most things in life, must exist in the paradox of preserving and protecting individual privacy and humanity, yet without going to the extreme of deleting the record of any person’s or group’s existence. As humanistic inquiry becomes progressively digitally aided or born, Jones’s work becomes more prescient as a fundamental text examining this field’s surrounding ethical and legal issues and how they affect humans. After all, as John Donne penned in the early decades of English humanism, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” So too do data practices affect human data subjects; so too must the ethics of (digital) humanistic inquiry undergo thoughtful contemplation as scholars and lawyers, all people, undertake the work of using data to tell and understand the human experience.

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