The freedom of information offered by the internet has had drastic implications for liberty. To the benefit of individuals, it reduces information asymmetries with business and increases transparency in government. It allows us to make more informed decisions, where ignorance has long been the justification for all manner of government intervention programs.
On the other hand, the internet has created a whole slew of privacy worries, with vast accumulations of data that can easily be collected and abused by hackers, corporations, or governments. For many people, however, more worrying that covert and sinister info gathering, is the permanence of data that they themselves have willingly publicized in the past. Embarrassing photos, drunken tweets, or any other errors in judgment that could come back to bite someone in their personal or professional life have attracted the attention of regulators all over the world, with many countries now pushing for a so-called “right to be forgotten.”
There are many reasons why this is an absurd concept. First of all, the very notion of what a “right” is has been hopelessly confused. A right is something a person possesses by virtue of their very nature, and through natural universal laws. The violation of a right represents a claim on someone else. You have a right to your life, meaning that anyone who tries to take it from you is violating natural law and subject to penalty. Your right to your property extends from your right to your life and control over your own body.
A right to be forgotten, on the other hand, comprises none of the key features of what a right is, and must be. In this case, the word “right” is being used to simply mean “something people want.” To see this, think of what such a right would require. To force other people to forget you would require every person to have control over the mind and thoughts of every other person. Even if such a thing were technically possible, can anyone conceive of a more totalitarian and invasive system?
Of course, the right to be forgotten is undoubtedly meant to be a metaphor, rather than a literal suggestion of mind control, but even then the implications are sinister. In practice, proponents of the right want to use it to force people to remove unwanted content pertaining to their past exploits from the internet, with some artists even calling for the removal of bad reviews. With respect to this last point, it should be noted that, to the present author at least, bad reviews are often the most informative, the most important, and the most influential as to whether or not a product will be purchased.
The idea still restricts what people can do with their own private property. If you own a photo of someone, you have every right to share it, and if you own a memory of someone doing something embarrassing, you have every right to relate that memory in the form of speech. To deny this is to deny that people have ownership of their own bodies and their own lives.
The right to be forgotten raises similar issues to laws against slander and libel, in which people are alleged to have a right to their reputation. But a reputation is nothing more than what others think of you. To control a reputation means to control the thoughts of others, just as to control the memory of embarrassing past incidents requires the control of others’ thoughts.
We should always be wary of efforts to control or limit the information available to the public. History has shown that one of the first and greatest weapons of totalitarian governments is to limit the freedom of expression and the free flow of information.