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This article was published on January 23, 2012

Online privacy: Do we have a right to be forgotten? Should we ’embrace solitude’?

Online privacy: Do we have a right to be forgotten? Should we ’embrace solitude’?

In Germany, Google is famously compelled to give citizens the right to have their houses blurred out of Street View to protect their privacy – an option many of them have taken up. When using the tool to explore the city of Munich, where I’m staying for the DLD conference, the very first street I looked at had three houses blurred out.

Yes, Germany is a highly privacy-conscious nation, so it seemed fitting that one of the main themes at DLD today was online privacy. A variety of suggestions reared their heads as to how we can solve the problem of our traditional privacy rights being worn away by the race to share increasing amounts of information online.

A ‘right to be forgotten’

As you might expect, European Commissioner Viviane Reding’s approach was based around legislation – a common set of data protection laws across the European Union are set to be announced this week, replacing the complex mess of rules currently in place, which vary from country to country. Key to Reding’s argument was a “right to be forgotten” – the idea that anyone should be able to delete all the data they’ve put into an online service at any time.

That seems sensible enough, although Jeff Jarvis, the ultimate advocate for the benefits of living our lives in public, angrily live-blogged his thoughts on the talk. On the subject of a ‘right to be forgotten’, he said “I fear the implications for free speech. And on a practical level, how can one as a principle tell people to no longer know what they know?”

Viviane Reding (Getty Images / DLD)

To my mind – it seems like Jarvis misunderstood Reding’s ‘right to be forgotten’. Not even the most powerful government can erase your memory. No – she was far more likely discussing a right to be forgotten by a Facebook, Twitter or whichever service you no longer wish to be a part of. After all, you never really know for sure if all your data is gone for good if you delete an online user account – having a cast-iron guarantee that your data is gone for good sounds like common sense to me.

Indeed – a draft of the new EU laws, obtained by Reuters, indicates that this ‘right to be forgotten’ simply “would allow people to request that their information be erased and not disseminated online.”

Of course, deleting all your own data doesn’t mean you that all trace of you is erased from a service. If I deleted my Twitter account, other users’ mentions of me would mean I was still there in some form. Even if all those mentions were deleted too, screen captures or quotations of my tweets may still exist. If you publish something online, there’s no guarantee that it will ever truly be forgotten.

Should we ‘re-embrace solitude’?

Writer Andrew Keen isn’t, er, keen on the ever-increasing ways we have to share our entire lives online. In his talk at DLD today, he argued that we are being “seduced into believing that we want to be social,” by companies like Facebook that offer us increasing ways to share our lives.

Andrew Keen

Keen, who says that he does not have a Facebook account as an act of resistance against the trend, argues that we should “re-embrace solitude,” rediscovering the days when we didn’t feel compelled to share everything from our physical workouts to our listening habits in real-time.

“We as ‘Little Brothers’ are the collective ‘Big Brothers’ of the 21st century,” Keen argued, suggesting that all of us knowing so much about each other wasn’t healthy.

Relax – it’s all going to be fine

It’s easy to get emotional about privacy – whether you’re pushing against the tide like Andrew Keen, or fiercely encouraging a public-facing life, like Jeff Jarvis. However, maybe the two sides aren’t so far apart after all.

Jarvis criticised Keen’s anti-sharing polemic, saying “Funny, but the internet was last accused of making us antisocial and now it’s accused of making us too social. It makes us neither. We make it.” But Keen himself said that action against over-sharing “can only be done by us – we are the builders of this network.” That sounds like exactly the same argument to me.

Governments and businesses have a stake in the future of online privacy – but what we share is ultimately down  to individual choice.

Maybe we’ll see groups of ‘anti-sharers’ set up communes in mountain retreats where they can escape the lure of one more Foursquare check-in . Meanwhile, other people will live-stream their brain activity and heartbeats just for the hell of it without a thought for how the data might be used. The rest of us will find a balance somewhere in the middle. As long as robust laws are in place to punish those who abuse our data, it’s all going to be fine.

Now, I’m off to share which beer I’m drinking in my hotel bar via Untappd and then tell all my friends on Path the exact time I go to sleep…

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