The Internet has, in recent years, become a vast repository for booking photographs, in part because of large websites like mugshots.com, which post them and then charge hundreds of dollars for their removal
Our problem is not (and has never been IMO) that information is available – even perpetually available – online. Our problem instead is that we (generically) cannot seem to wrap our heads around the idea that just because something is on the internet doesn’t make it real, or true, or even – should the other two criteria be met -- relevant. It’s just information.
Arguments about free speech, about the right to know, about the importance of generating discussion get juxtaposed with those about the presumption of innocence, about the right to due process and concerns about proportionality and community response.
In other arenas, we’ve had discussions about whether there is in fact a ‘Right to be Forgotten’. Whether individuals should have the right to request that information about themselves that is outdated, irrelevant and (potentially) damaging be removed from search engine results. In doing so, are we altering the public record to our detriment?
The problem, it seems to me, is not solved by deciding whether or not information should be originally posted, nor whether it should be removed in some kind of timely fashion. Rather, the problem is with the presumption that any and every piece of information that can be compiled is equally important or, in fact, important at all. In non-virtual spaces we have no trouble weighting the value to be placed on a given piece of information – we look at context, at the when and how and where and we understand that something said as a frustrated 14 year old may be less indicative of that person’s views, personality or competence than a published position paper or even an adult statement in similar circumstances.
Why, then, are we unable to apply that same judicious weighting to information we find online? Why are we advising students and young adults that they may need to revisit blog posts from tears ago and “amend” them or add some kind of statement qualifying or even denying the statements therein contained. Why the fear mongering, the concern that any and every thing about you that has ever been put online (by you or anyone else) must be mercilessly monitored lest it disqualify you from a job or other opportunity? For that matter, why is it ok for companies to have business models predicated on encouraging and then exploiting personal statements yet we condemn individuals for making those personal statements? Not to mention a business model that generates revenue by posting information online and then charging for its removal.
Let’s absolutely have the conversations about this information – about whether and when to put information up or to remove it, about who should have access to information and how they should be able to access it. Let us also, however, stop treating any and all information as being of equal (and heavy) weight. Let us return to looking at information critically, assessing its worth before we use it to make decisions. Let’s actively engage with information rather than passively consuming it. And instead of lecturing people and insisting that they have some kind of quasi-moral informational self-determination obligation, let us instead re-view what and how that information is being used, not to mention commodified.