Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Burning, updated for the Digital Age

We're so much more enlightened than prior Book Burning Generations, aren't we?  Book burning has a long and inglorious history.  History also teaches us that the book burners usually end up getting burned themselves.  

Think of Savanarola in 1497, in the famous Bonfire of the Vanities, burning books and objects that were deemed temptations to sin.  Two years later, Savanarola was himself burned at the stake.

Think of the Nazis in 1933, burning "un-German" books.  Twelve years later, they left Germany burning, along with much of Europe.  

Book burning has been with us in every age.  Books were burned to protect the faith, or to protect the nation, or to protect the regime.  Now, in order to protect "privacy", Europe is creating a poorly-defined, poorly-conceived "Right to be Forgotten", on which I've blogged before.  Are we re-igniting the long tradition of book burning?   

In the digital age, we don't burn physical books.  Instead, we delete data.  

The Right to be Forgotten is more pernicious than book burning.  The Right to be Forgotten attempts to give to individuals the legal rights to obliterate unpalatable elements of their personal data, published in third-party sources, whether they are social networking sites, or newspapers, or books, or online archives.  In the real world, these can be things like a report on a politician taking a bribe.  Or a doctor put on trial for medical malpractice.  Or a person filing for bankruptcy.  You can easily see how the person concerned could have an interest in obliterating any reference to these embarrassing facts, while other people might have a very legitimate interest to know about them. 

Historically, book burning was usually a symbolic, political protest act.  No one burning books was under the illusion of destroying the text of a book being burned.  Only the physical copy of the text was being burned.  The text would survive elsewhere.  But the Right to be Forgotten is attempting to obliterate the text, the source, the facts themselves, and not merely some copy of those facts circulating in a physical book or newspaper or online site.  

Deleting data in the name of the "right to be forgotten" is only the tip of the privacy-ideology iceberg.  One of the core tenets of this ideology is that all personal data should be deleted, as soon as it is "no longer necessary".  This ideology is based on the fear that any personal data could be mis-used to invade someone's privacy, and that the risk of an invasion of privacy should automatically outweigh any potential future benefits of retaining the data.  This is a deeply pessimistic ideology, which concludes that retaining data can give rise to future risks and to future benefits, but since we don't yet know what they are, we should default to deleting the data to prevent the risks, rather than retaining them to enable the benefits.  

As Savanarola might say, in an outburst of data deletion demogoguery, let's burn all those "vanities", those databases of personal data, which are nothing but temptations to sin against someone's privacy.  But the opposite may prove true, that these vanities are databases of great value and beauty, and we will someday learn it would be a sin to obliterate them.  Botticelli is believed to have burned some of his paintings, as he was caught up in Savanarola-fever.  A few years later, Botticelli renounced Savanarola's worldview.  

I can understand that databases should be protected, secured, analyzed responsibly, yes...but obliterated?, just because something could go wrong?   If we took that approach in the rest of our lives, what would be left?  How bizarre that this destructive pessimistic philosophy on data deletion has become conventional wisdom, at least in Europe.  Well, for now.  In the long run, book burning has never been a winning strategy.  If you think our age is more enlightened than prior ages of book burners, why do you think burning books in the name of privacy is more legitimate than burning books in the name of race, religion, or regime?


Serenade said...

Sorry Mr. Fleischer, but I think that you're dressing up as moral an issue that for the search engines is an economic one.
What the industry of search engines is afraid of, is the cost of adapting their processes and software to this new right, in the case it’s granted by the European authorities.
Human mind is something wonderful. It helps us to remember, and that’s great, but also helps us to forget many things that due to its nature or its irrelevance are not interested in remembering.
Computers are great too but in some terms not as much as our minds. A computer can't do what is not programmed for. A computer can't remember if not told to do so and can't forget if not told to do so.
The idea behind the “right to be forgotten” Is not to burn books and I’m pretty sure that you know it. The idea is much more similar to the ability of the human mind to forget.
There are many reasons why a person could not be able to get its data deleted from a webpage. Maybe the webpage is hosted in a country with little or no respect for the privacy rights, maybe the information is correct and published in a digital newspaper. In these cases, having the search engines that information indexed is like having thousands of people pointing at the information that otherwise would have been forgotten, pointing at you.
I dislike Savonarola’s behavior, but I also dislike having people pointing at me or the facts of my life I don’t want to remark.

Unknown said...

I guess, digital ways does not indicate that we are igniting book burning, I do agree with serenade about the true idea behind "right to be forgotten" , and also many digital books are made originally by new authors, try visit , for list of good quality ebooks.