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Habeas data: How to build an internet that forgets

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

By Andrew Orlowski, 11 Jun 2012

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).

Give it up, lads

Much of the time, internet giants obfuscate this, suggesting that ownership belongs to some amorphous, unnamed entity. But when cornered, they will grudgingly concede this point; they have to, as they can't seriously argue anything else. They're particularly terrified of the "right to be forgotten" - according to Google it breaks the internet. Of course, it doesn't, "breaking the internet" is Googlespeak for "minor inconvenience to Google".

In his new book Nick Harkaway argues that we have to assert ownership of digital objects if we're to have any privacy. Mark Bide and Dominic Young made this point powerfully here, recently. Privacy and copyright advocates are really on the same page. And so too is anyone worried about permanence of data. Once you 'own' your data, you can decide when it's revoked - when it expires.

Time's Person of the Year: John Doe blogger

Actually, you don't. You're the product

Now, at the start of this piece I mentioned some bubbles being burst. The assertion of ownership by the individual is something I regard as a fairly inevitable maturing of the internet. You might disagree. Trying to argue that simply because something is digital it has no properties or ownership strikes me like wishful thinking, like John Lennon's Imagine, and is simply mooing at the Moon. Best of luck with that one.

But it isn't going to be welcomed by everyone. The forces fighting the individual and individual rights today are the intermediaries and middlemen. Lacking both courage and commercial imagination, our biggest internet companies obsessively hoard our data trails, regarding them as their own. But as people increasingly assert their rights, these Googles and Facebooks will have to grow up too, and perhaps practise what they preach for everyone else: the need to adjust to radical change. There are worse places to be: these companies are wealthy and magnets for talented and imaginative engineers, so they're well placed to start innovating and adding value with the data they use, but can no longer assume is their own, forever.

With the right incentives, perhaps they can even start competing to see who can be the best stewards of our individual rights. It's no stranger than the bootleggers of the Prohibition era becoming legitimate liquor companies.

But back to the bubbles. I see two immediate hypes of today being compromised. One is the mania for Big Data - the great epistemological Snark Hunt of our time. As the data expires, vast aggregated data sets become less reliable. And what, you may wonder, is the purpose of the cloud, if we're much more selective about what we leave behind?

When a few years ago Time magazine made YOU the person of the year, it was swallowing the Silicon Valley line that networks are designed around humans. They're not, and making the internet more responsive to humans is going to be quite a challenge for the engineers. A whole generation of programmers, network designers and web evangelists might have to start thinking things from scratch... and some will be exercising those brains for the first time.

Isn't this going to be fun? ®

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