The “right to be forgotten,” a fundamental part of the proposed reforms to the EU’s data protection legislation, is being watched closely by professionals in the archives world. From a bird’s eye view, this proposal would have an undeniable effect on the preservation of the individual and collective memory of society.
Although the rationale and intent of the proposal is based on increasing concerns over the impact of rapidly advancing and intrusive technologies on the lives of people, the implications for the appraisal, selection and preservation of records containing personal data over time are very real and will need to be carefully considered. This proposal must be reviewed with the understanding that archival records—records of enduring administrative, legal, fiscal, cultural, historical and intrinsic value—represent the essence of a society and provide glimpses into the past and lessons for future generations. Archives also protect individuals and society as a whole by ensuring there is evidence of accountability in individual and/or collective actions on a long-term basis. The erasure of such data may have a crippling effect on the advancement of a society as it relates to the knowledge required to move forward.
The proposal takes archivists outside of their “comfort zones” given their roles as the guardians of valuable evidence and information in records and “knowledge providers” for current and future research. Archivists are charged with preserving the characteristics of society—good and bad—in order to assist researchers with understanding the why, what, when and how. They seek to preserve three main elements in records: the content, the context and the structure of the information so no gaps, misinterpretations and/or misunderstandings exist in researchable materials. Their ability to select that information based on the acquired skill of archival appraisal will be impaired if that information, for whatever reason, has already been removed.
Although the principle behind the right to be forgotten is understood, a balance must be struck between protecting the rights of citizens and adequate data retention for research purposes. This will not be an easy task, and collaboration between privacy advocates and information management professionals, including archivists, will be absolutely critical in the quest for balance.
Other concerns about the current proposal include “data portability” and data ownership.
Traditionally, archivists have looked to the principle of provenance, which seeks to establish the true and rightful owner/creator of record(s). Establishing ownership helps provide context as to how and why information was captured. Additionally, the conditions under which information is preserved, shared and/or reproduced is tied to the wishes of the rightful owner/creator. In this new environment where information may be transferred from virtual place to place, the ownership of information is unclear. This would inevitably impact who has the right to erase data.
It will also be challenging to establish the original purpose behind the creation of the information. The chain of data custody will be broken, potentially leading to the destruction of its evidential quality and causing questions on the authenticity and integrity of the information.
Another key archival principal, “original order,” will no longer be applicable in this post-custodial environment where information is not static and subject to ever-changing arrangement and structure. Archivists are only now coming to grips with managing electronic records in structured electronic document and records management systems and must be prepared to extend their skill sets.
Also notable, the definition of “record” is also constantly changing. In the meantime, society’s new records and archives are under threat by the push of a button.
In the digital world, being “forgotten” is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. The question may be asked as to whether people want to be completely forgotten. With the dramatic increase in users on social media sites, the evidence may suggest that individuals are less and less concerned about being totally forgotten and in fact seem to want to leave their mark, digitally or otherwise.
More attention should instead be paid to educating individuals to ensure that the record they create on themselves is one they wish to be left behind. Control of data at the point of creation is far more manageable than trying to control data after records capture. This also means individuals should be encouraged to monitor records created on them by organisations, both public and private.
Archivists would like to continue to preserve the hopes, aspirations, achievements and, wherever necessary, downfalls of the people to provide lessons to society. From the preservation of writings on the great pharaohs to the world’s greatest thinkers and inventors as well as the ordinary man and woman, archivists recognise that without the actions and ideas of people, both individually and collectively, life would be meaningless. Society only benefits from the actions and ideas of people when they are recorded, preserved for posterity and made available. Consequently, the “right to be forgotten” if not properly executed, may lead to “the society that was forgotten.”