A new European guideline ensures that citizens have the right to be forgotten. They can ask search engines to remove results that are no longer relevant. That will prevent your drunk selfie from appearing on the first page of search results the next time a potential employer searches for your name. The guideline is primarily aimed at search engines, but wider regulation is in the works.
As genealogists, we’re used to personal information becoming public after enough time passes, even if the information may be embarrassing for the descendants. Perhaps grandma never admitted that she had an illegitimate child and father was silent about his time in a psychiatric facility, but after a hundred years this information is accessible to everybody. If they would have had the opportunity to erase the information by claiming the right to be forgotten, surely they would have had their files deleted and their offspring would not have been able to find this information.
The right to privacy and the right to information are at odds with each other. For paper files, there is a tried and tested method: restrict access during a specified period. For recent information, the right to privacy takes precedence and for old information, the right to information takes precedence.
In the case of digital information, public information is usually also easily accessible, confronting more people with unwanted or outdated information about themselves. The solution that the European Union chose is different than in the paper world: they don’t restrict access, but allow the possibility to have the information and references to the information to be removed. This negates the possibility to make the information available in the future. The privacy wins, and future historians will have to make due with censored information.
This development fits into a larger discussion about digital preservation. Until now, this discussion focused mainly on keeping information accessible despite obsolete media (who can still read a 5 1/4″ floppy disk?) and file formats. But by allowing information to be deleted upon request, digital information will become even more volatile.
The National Archivist of the Netherlands, Marens Engelhard, called attention to the long-term effects of the right to be forgotten at the iBestuur [iGovernance] conference 2015. One of his theses was “As a result of the destruction of personal information, we may no longer be able to reconstruct our past.” I hope the lawmakers will heed his warning.