Inside 1to1:Privacy

The virtues of deleting

March 31, 2010

By Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

As journalists, researchers, social networking executives and privacy advocates have pointed out, there are multiple sides in the debate over whether deleting the information that individuals and companies put out online is positive or negative.

Prof. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of
Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age and director of the Information and Innovation Policy Research Centre, LKY School of Public Policy/National University of Singapore, explores the value of being able to forget in light of the ongoing debate over online deletion.


For millennia, forgetting has been easy for us humans. It's built into the way we work. Biologically, we forget most of what we experience, think and feel every day.

Remembering has required extra effort--a bit of money or time. In the digital age, this has become reversed. Today, remembering is the default, and forgetting the exception--cumbersome and time-consuming.

Easily recording and keeping accessible the information treasures of humankind has tremendous advantages. It increases efficiency, enhances trust and may even help us transcend (at least informationally) one of the most fundamental limitations of our existence: mortality.

In the general euphoria over cheap, comprehensive and accessible digital memory, we must however not overlook some deeply troubling implications of ubiquitous digital memory in general and comprehensive online histories in particular.

As many information privacy experts have pointed out for years, collecting information about somebody's current online habits and preferences may turn into a potent source of power in the future. Watch what you post online, warned President Obama last year, so that you won't come to regret it in decades to come. His analysis is correct: as comprehensive digital memory is with us, we must tread carefully online--even more so than before. What is a harmless joke today, may once taken out of context turn into a damning statement in the distant future. But the president's remedy is troubling. He advises us to self-censor, when in doubt to keep quiet, to stay silent and to shut up. But our democratic society requires the exact opposite to stay alive and resilient. It needs open and robust debate, not just a right, but a culture of free expression and fearless opposition. If we all self-censor, we starve our democracy to death. And we forego the very opportunity of what Web 2.0 has to offer: extensive online collaboration, including the sharing and peer production of knowledge.

Rather than self-censoring our online behavior, I believe we must be able to act, engage and share information online, perhaps even more so than today. At the same time, we ought to understand that such behavior also requires an ability to discard information that is no longer relevant or important, freeing us up to see the forest and not just the trees. This is why I suggest we reintroduce forgetting into our digital lives--for example, by enabling us to delete our online histories after a certain period of time (which I believe we should be able to choose individually). Thus, information about my past preferences and values which I believe are no longer relevant for who I am, or what I am looking for today can be made to fade away, rather than remain with us like the bad aftertaste the day after too many cheap cocktails.

Those of us who want to preserve our online histories for whatever reason should be able to do so, just as others should have the opportunity to expunge them if they so desire. My goal is to reintroduce meaningful choice to the question of digital forgetting, replacing the implicit default of comprehensive remembering built into so many digital tools and services we use today.

This would not "solve" the information privacy challenge we face, nor address all of the issues of digital remembering. But being able to choose when one's online histories are to be expunged would be a valuable first step in reintroducing forgetting, in challenging the shift towards an ever less forgetting and thus less forgiving society. It would be relatively easy to implement, and with the right user interface could be made sufficiently easy to use. Ask.com has already shown how online search histories can be erased with a single, easy click; and drop.io is a case-in-point on how photo and file sharing online can work with user-selected expiration dates. Most importantly, giving individuals a simple choice in how long their online histories are kept would be eminently simpler than more complex technical solutions, more individual than a general rule through new regulation or laws and less detrimental than self-censorship to the very fabric of our democracy.


Hear more from Viktor Mayer-Schönberger at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit, April 19-21, in Washington, DC.