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Habeas data: How to build an internet that forgets

Hoarders and hypesters don't want expiry dates on YOUR data

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Comment All it takes one tiny pinprick to burst a bubble. I think I've seen one pin that might pop two huge bubbles - and it may well be the most subversive idea you'll hear all year.

Over at The Atlantic blog comes a report on a problem with the internet. You have to be a forgiving reader to wade through Megan Marber's meandering stoner student prose and metaphors she tortures past breaking point. But she's bright, and trips over it nonetheless, realising it's quite a profound problem. Today's networks never forget anything.

Not being able to escape your youthful indiscretions is one aspect of digital permanence that's frequently cited. Another is the inability to grow, or escape the digital trail. Jaron Lanier (author of You Are Not a Gadget) and Nick Carr have doubted if Bob Dylan could ever have gone electric. As it was, he was called Judas. But what would it have been like in an era of Facebook? Losing the ability to re-invent yourself, or present yourself with ambiguity, is much harder.

"You can never escape your past. The frontier of invisibility is replaced by the cage of transparency," writes Nick Carr.

Marber cites a novelty application called Snapchat, which allows you to delete a message after a few seconds – much like the instruction tape from Mission Impossible would self-destruct – as a reaction against this permanence. Such applications "help us to reclaim the productive limitations of the analog", she suggests. We hear a lot about the dangers of identity theft - but we rarely hear that our identity is being compromised by the network owners themselves.

This is one of those ideas that is remarkable for never being mentioned, but once the genie is let out of the bottle, takes on a life of its own. Why would that be?

The hype cycle

Well, imagine getting a brand new washing machine that on the delicate cycle, shreds all your nicest shirts. Then, when it's finished, it gives you a dazzling multimedia presentation to persuade you that you look much better in shredded shirts, that shredded shirts are the coolest thing to wear this season, and anyway, if you don't like shirts shredded you're some kind of nutter, or Luddite. Get with the shredding program!

This is how Silicon Valley operates. It invariably attempts to recast a bug or an omission as a wonderful new feature. You can view much of the past 15 years of utopian internet hype as an attempt to persuade us that temporary "features" of today's (very young) internet are immutably fixed, forever. Magazines such as WiReD are devotely entirely to this propaganda cause. And one of these "features" is the permanence of data. We're just going to have to suck it all up.

But if you think about it, that's a complete nonsense. What's missing is the primacy of the individual, as the sovereign owner of the data, on our digital networks. In real life, things have clear ownership, even if their usage is assigned to the public. If digital networks are to mirror the richness and flexibility of real life, then digital things will acquire aspects of ownership too. It's hard to envisage an internet that fails to grow and respect the individual becoming anything other than an annoying background noise.

And this is of great value to us. If you want your digital trail to vanish, you should be able to do assert this right. After all, the data belongs to you, and nobody else. This is called habeas data. The name was coined to describe privacy legislation enacted in Latin America in the 1990s - there's a short history here. It's also recognised in European privacy law. Recent proposals made it quite explicit, calling it 'the right to be forgotten' (the draft, in PDF, here).

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