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The “right” to be forgotten & the urge to remember

In just four days more than 40,000 Europeans took advantage of their newly granted “right to be forgotten” online by asking Google to eliminate search results showing their names. The recent ruling by the European Union Court of Justice applies to social networking services and Google competitors too, but it’s the world’s dominant search engine that seems to be facing the biggest burden in terms of meeting requests to have personal information scrubbed. There are more than 500 million people in the area covered by the EU ruling, and Google is on a hiring spree to handle the anticipated rush—not only adding frontline programmers but also creating an advisory board that includes a philosopher of information ethics from Oxford and a U.N. free-speech specialist to, as one report put it, help “navigate through the ethical shoals.”

No question the ethical issues are significant, and if this ruling helps lead to clearer policies and fair, enforceable laws balancing the right to privacy with the right to know, so much the better. But what also makes the story interesting is what appears to be the pent-up demand to be forgotten online—even as so many hundreds of millions of other people online still try so hard to be noticed. Forty-thousand in four days may not signal a tipping point, but Google’s response suggests it doesn’t necessarily anticipate waning volume for such requests either.

There’s the desire to be forgotten, and the desire to be noticed, but there’s also the compelling and evident desire to remember, mourn, and memorialize online.

The Facebook page of a friend who died four years ago is still up and “active,” in that friends and family continue to post remembrances. Another friend, an otherwise active poster on Facebook who suddenly lost a family member this spring, has been quiet since uploading a photo of that family member as her profile picture. You’ve probably encountered similar instances yourself, or participated directly, and if so you’re far from alone. Facebook and other services have for a while now provided options for maintaining (or deactivating) pages and accounts set up by users who’ve died, as well as guidelines for setting up memorial pages. Meanwhile, cemeteries are increasingly supplementing physical (analog?) customs and traditions with digital and interactive options, from headstones emblazoned with scannable codes that let visitors call up information on their mobile devices about the deceased, to geospatial technology allowing online “visits” and searches for specific graves or “points of interest.” 

Commonweal subscriber Eileen Markey raised this point in commenting on Paul Moses’s recent dotCommonweal post about Amazon: “I think there are actually some serious Catholic, Incarnational questions to ponder in our march to ever more digital lives” (and Jim Pauwels seconded). What might some of those be? Eamon Duffy, in a piece in the current issue of the New York Review of Books on the history saints and saint-making (titled, as it happens, “The Intense Afterlife of the Saints”), writes that “the central Christian doctrine of Incarnation might be argued to entail of necessity the celebration of the material and not just the spiritual world, including the bodies of the saints.” Also, he explains,

[t]he saint was believed to be present in his relics, as Christ was present in the Eucharist. To journey to a shrine, to touch the holy bones or the tomb in which they rested, to anoint withered limbs with oil from the lamps that burned before them, to drink water in which dust from the shrine had been dissolved—all this brought the devotee physically and concretely within the scope of the saint’s power and patronage. “Brandea,” pieces of cloth that had touched a saint’s bones, were believed to become heavier from the contact.

Now, even if we’re not necessarily talking saints, and if online photos, “likes,” and status updates left behind by the deceased don’t have weight in the same physical sense as letters or snapshots, could their loved ones nonetheless find it comforting to think of these things as “heavier” from—if only via mouse-click or keystroke—the contact?

In high school I had a teacher who illustrated the meaning of the word “mores” by telling us about a wake she’d attended as a guest of a friend in Ireland, where the family not only put the body of the deceased on view in the parlor but in the course of the next couple of days took turns dancing around the room with it. “It was somebody’s father or uncle,” my teacher said. “But he was really heavy.” She said she would never forget it. I only heard about it—for me, it was a virtual experience—but I haven’t forgotten it either, the image coming to mind whenever I see or hear the word “mores.”

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Dominic - thanks for thinking about Eileen Markey's comment and coming up with this thought-provoking post.  From the Google news story to which you link:

Imposing more limitations on what kind of personal information Google and other search engines can show in Europe has raised fears about the censorship affecting everything from elections to the safety of children. For instance, politicians might be able to block damaging information from showing up in search results. Other critics of the ruling have warned that even pedophiles might be able to delete past convictions from their results. [Emphasis mine - JP] Supporters of the European court ruling, though, argue that people should be able to remove some information about youthful indiscretions, financial missteps and arrests that never resulted in convictions.

Obviously, these are ethically murky waters.  Apparently it's not known yet how Google will implement this ruling?  I was once part of a search committee that removed an applicant from consideration because someone on the committee Googled him and found some really embarrassing videos.  That sounds like just the sort of thing that someone in Europe can now petition Google to remove.  Whose right should prevail, the prospective employee's or the prospective employer's?

What about sex offenders?  There was a case in our community several years ago in which a much-honored retired pastor was removed from ministry (such as it was; he was near or beyond 90 years old and lived in a retirement home) under the Dallas Charter's zero-tolerance policy for a single credible accusation that went back to the 1950s.  The parish where he had served for many years had named their parish hall after him; it's now called the Parish Center.  Naturally, even if this was in Europe rather than the US, the EU court's ruling isn't going to completely expunge that record, but only prevent search engines from reporting it in a search result.  But the logic seems extensible: if youthful indiscretions can't be reported by search engines, should they be available to persons who happen to know's URL?

Here's another angle: I learned about that pastor's removal from ministry by reading the newspaper.  Presumably, if that newspaper makes its story archives available on-line, the story would appear in search results.  But I would assume that, under this EU court ruling, search engines would suppress that story from appearing as search results in Europe.  That doesn't seem quite fair to the news organization, which fulfilled its community journalistic responsibility by reporting the story, and would seem to deserve to have that record available to citizens who use the Internet.

Your post covered many other interesting topics re: Incarnation, memory and mourning.  I may comment on those after I've thought some more about them. I don't want to lose the thread prompted by Eileen's comment.  But the EU/Google story is also interesting in its own right.


I don't like this particular initiative. I can understand the need for privacy. But what I think needs to occur is that people using the world wide web need to understand how it works better. For example, "Jim Pauwels" or "Dominic Preziosi" will appear in search engines. And links will take them to this combox. Now, maybe both Jim and Dominic understand that their comments, on this forum, are part of the public domain but others may not. Or, take for example, if you attend a conference or workshop and they use the web to distribute materials. Your name will appear as part of an attendee.

There is a place for public transparency and we should be accountable for our public representations. However, we also all make mistakes as well.

So, I would prefer that organizations, groups, using the world wide web specify clearly that the information is considered public. How many people know, for instance, that when a photo is embedded on Facebook it become the property of Facebook. Ditto for Google Plus. I am not sure if that has changed but that had previously been the standard.

With social media accelerating, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, our public representation is more evident. Speaking of which maybe I should change my name on Pinterest! Anybody searching me can find my account.

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