Keeping the Past Private

Review: Meg Leta Jones, ‘Ctrl + Z: The Right to Be Forgotten'

computer cyber
July 2, 2016

On July 2, 1985, a 23-year-old woman named Mary Martha Michelson began screaming at a convenience-store clerk in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. She’d dashed in to buy some beer, leaving her pocketbook in the car, and when the clerk demanded proof of age, she became unhinged: screeching obscenities, sweeping the counter clear of its magazine and chewing-tobacco displays, and storming out—only to run straight into a Montgomery County deputy sheriff, on his way in to buy a cup of coffee. After a little conversation and some calming down, Mary Martha apologized to the clerk and was allowed to go her way.

On July 2, 2015, exactly 30 years later, a 16-year-old named Michael Joseph Calford, just a few weeks after receiving his driver’s license, decided to stop at a gas station on the outskirts of Ogden, Utah. When the ratchet wouldn’t hold the pump handle open, he jammed a small stick into the hand grip and walked into the station to buy a pack of gum. Fortunately, the stick held. Unfortunately, the nozzle popped out of his gas tank, the rubber hose writhing like an injured snake as it sprayed gasoline across the station. Across Michael Joseph himself, for that matter, when he slipped on the wet asphalt as he came running out to shut off the pump. Eventually, he managed to wrestle down the thrashing pump handle, but he had to pay for all the wasted gas—and, two weeks later, he received in the mail a ticket from the Weber County courthouse, fining him for spilling a prohibited substance into gutters that emptied into the local storm sewers.

If you’ve never heard this pair of stories, that’s probably because I just made them up (although I based them on real incidents, changing the names to protect the poor idiots involved). But if they had really happened, there is an easy prediction to make: Mary Martha Michelson’s 1985 breakdown would have left no lasting trace, fading into the darkness of lost memories. Michael Joseph Calford’s 2015 mishap, however, would have been recorded—by the station’s security cameras, if not on some passerby’s phone. Posted onto YouTube, a key scene animated as a GIF for Twitter, the gas-station snake-wrestling match might have received millions of views and spawned thousands of amused and snarky comments: the first Google result when employers, friends, or dates do an Internet search for his name for the rest of his life.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know that this kind of thing is madness? That the Internet is a maw chewing us alive? Maybe on the shrunken staff of the newly bankrupted Gawker site, there are a few believers left, but the rest of the world knows that the Web really is a world-wide web: It’s sticky, prowled by spiders, and there’s no escape for anything it’s caught.

This is the situation that has prompted Ctrl + Z: The Right to Be Forgotten, a new book by Meg Leta Jones, a communications professor at Georgetown University. Books about electronic phenomena always risk becoming dated in the production gap—particularly large for university presses—between the writing and the printing, and in the first month of its publication, Ctrl + Z already has several broken links in its notes, and it was completed before a chapter could be formed from the Internet brouhaha of Hulk Hogan’s victorious lawsuit against Gawker.

For that matter, Jones’s book is a dull read: an over-documented and under-thought trudge through the topic. If you want a more journalistic guide to the horrors of the Internet and a more practical guide to individual solutions, try So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the 2015 volume by the popular author Jon Ronson. For more philosophical analysis about technology, the old work of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman remains the starting point. For superior analysis of reputation and memory, the place to go is probably David Rieff’s flawed but fascinating In Praise of Forgetting, published this spring.

Still, Meg Leta Jones deserves credit for putting the issue before us. "The central thesis of Ctrl + Z," she writes, "is that a digital right to be forgotten is an innovative idea with a lot of possibilities and potential." That’s a fairly weak formulation; how much is "a lot"? But she grows more forceful as the book goes on, arguing that the United States needs "a constitutional forgiveness law that contains elements of time, oversight, relief, a forgivable offense, specific harm, and social benefit." She wants the United States to become Europe, in other words, with a strong proclamation—at the level of constitutional amendment—that would enshrine a right to control of one’s digital presence.

The emotionally powerful stories in Ctrl + Z are the ones about public shaming: the response to a woman who misphrased a Tweet that made her sound racist, or the dentist who was revealed as a lion hunter. The Streisand Effect (the observation that an attempt to erase information may actually draw attention to it) and Poe’s Law (the claim that online sarcasm or parody will always be taken seriously by some readers) combine to leave no avenue for escape, once the mechanisms of online shaming have focused attention on a person.

At the same time, much of Ctrl + Z is directed at the use of cookies and data-mining to gather information about users for commercial purposes. Jones concentrates on commerce, in part because she has a knee-jerk mistrust of commercial activity—but also in part because she presumably thinks she has an easier case to make for her proposals when the ostensible violators are businesses.

Unfortunately, the gleeful shaming of the online pillory and the big-data collections of customer information are not the same thing, and they prove an uneasy yoking when combined in a call for new, Europeanized rights to dignity and privacy. They even pull in opposite directions when Jones tries to unite them for desired right to be forgotten. The effect of opposition to commercial activity, when joined to regulation of individual speech about others, would be a kind of backdoor by which the First Amendment can be vacated of all its meaning. That’s a popular desire at America’s colleges, but it has little traction outside the campus—and I cannot see much chance of victory in the attempt to sell it with horror stories from the Internet, however disturbing they are.

Nor can I picture those rights working to solve the problem, even if they were somehow defined in constitutional amendments. Meg Leta Jones sees some of the problems of the Internet clearly, but she has myopia about their solution—aware, like so many, only of the vocabulary of rights. That rights-language was never intended to be all-consuming or all-encompassing; even in the Bill of Rights, it works as a final defense to prevent the most egregious of government actions. In front of rights were supposed to be things like manners, kindness, dignity, honor, and virtue—the moral vocabularies of ordinary human interaction, and the moral vocabularies we need to restore to have any hope of easing the madness of modern interconnectivity.

The writings of the moralists—from ancient times through the Enlightenment—are filled with warnings about the dangers of gossip and rumor. The old Anglican Book of Common Prayer asks us to reject "the leaven of malice," and that word leaven is brilliantly chosen. A mean-spiritedness is mixed into the Internet, and like a yeast it bloats the whole thing, infecting all that it touches. In the 1630s, Descartes adapted a line from Ovid to become his personal motto: Bene vixit, bene qui latuit—"He lives well, who is well hidden." The moral failures of modernity can be measured by that line, I think. Technological advances are supposed to be the glory of modern times—and they’ve brought us back to the old worries about gossip and rumor. We live best, nowadays, by keeping ourselves well hidden.

Published under: Book reviews