The Information Welfare State
The "right to be forgotten" doesn't go far enough. We need mandatory insurance to protect online reputations.
Should you have to live down that one crazy night forever?
The great paradox of today's Internet is that the Web feels less and less orderly, even as technology companies preach the virtues of control.
Take Facebook: It has recently been caught hosting photos that its users had asked it to delete three years ago. Last year, a bug in its security system made the private photos of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, publicly accessible. Or take Anonymous, which keeps releasing personal information of private citizens and public officials, with the goal of making broad political statements or just having fun. Or take Path, a popular social network, which was recently caught uploading members' mobile phone contacts to its servers.
We are lucky that Path has taken at least some security precautions; without them, the address books of its 2 million users might have already been available to Anonymous. This would not only damage their privacy but also their reputations. After all, who knows what embarrassing numbers—for escorts, for exes, for psychiatrists—they are storing on their phones? Something similar happened in 2010, when Google bungled the launch of Google Buzz by revealing the names of one's most frequent email contacts.
What's to be done? One solution would be to make the Web a less anonymous place, so that it becomes possible to trace and punish the likes of, well, Anonymous. Another solution would be to accept such disasters as inevitable and focus on managing one's online reputation. A bevy of startups already advertise their ability to push damaging information about oneself down the search results. This may cost thousands of dollars, creating new digital divides between the rich and the poor.
The third, more popular solution is to embrace the so-called “right to be forgotten”—a right so ambiguous that even its proponents can't often define what it is. In its weakest form, it is commonsensical: Users should have the ability to delete whatever information they upload to online services. In its strongest form—whereby users are able to delete information about themselves even from third-party sites or search engines—it is too restrictive and unrealistic.
However, “the right to be forgotten” won't do much to mitigate debacles like Google Buzz and Path, let alone regulate Anonymous. While it may limit the distribution of inadvertently released information, it won't console those users whose reputation has already been damaged by the first instance of publication. Sometimes, a quick glance at the compromising information is enough; “the right to be forgotten” may force such information to disappear from the Internet—but it won't remove the memory from the minds of one's friends or business partners.
Here is a more elegant solution: We need a mandatory insurance scheme for online disasters. For what is an accidental disclosure of information if not an online disaster—a ferocious man-made information tsunami that can destroy one's reputation the way a real tsunami can destroy one's home?
Thus, if Facebook fails to delete a photo that you asked it to delete years ago or if Google accidentally releases your entire address book—and, most importantly, if you can show that this has caused you some verifiable harm (e.g., a crazy ex-boyfriend started cyber-stalking you as a result)—you should be entitled to monetary compensation.
Then, you can use the money to start a new life or use one of those start-ups to improve your online reputation. And the sums don't have to be trivial: Since only a small proportion of users suffer actual harms from such disclosures, a tiny monthly payment from everyone would raise enough funds to help those in trouble.
This scheme has many advantages. First of all, it doesn't mess with how the Internet works. There is no need to eliminate online anonymity or create a sophisticated censorship infrastructure demanded by “the right to be forgotten.” Second, it gives the victims of information tsunamis at least a semblance of proper compensation. No more vague promises of “It won't happen again”; victims will actually receive hard cash. Third, it levels the playing field for online reputation services and promotes the ideal of equality: Now it's not just the rich who can pay thousands of dollars to have their online reputations fixed.
Evgeny Morozov a contributing editor at the New Republic and the author of the forthcoming To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.