We live in a world where every mistake, every word, and every action are collected, stored and never forgotten on the internet. Think about that for a second: everything you do is built into a cache, a folder, a digital footprint that could come back to boot you in the rear at any moment in time.
I’m not talking about J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous dossiers or political action committees funding research into your private life, although in a Trumpian kind of way you have to wonder these days. I actually read an interesting statistic a while back—for the life of me I have forgotten the source—that 95 per cent of the global population will be ineligible to run for public office by the year 2030.
Why? Because collective algorithms, artificial intelligence, social media, and meta data have accomplished what Hoover never could: a complete transcript of our thoughts and actions, which for whatever reason we are psychologically compelled to continue sharing online.
One conflicting thought, one visit to a shady website, or one counter expression to the social progressive issue du jour, and shazam—you’re out of work, a marriage, and a future. That’s not Orwellian creepy at all!
This happened to me four years ago.
I won’t go into specific details, but for those interested in viewing my personal Sword of Damocles—just Google it. Don’t worry, Google’s algorithms, which are updated at least three times a day, will ensure the content is kept fresh and highly ranked for anyone interested in picking apart a private issue to which I paid a heavy public price.
Digital longevity reigns supreme at the mothership, which by the way owns 93 per cent of the search engine market in Canada. In the context of my 44 years on this planet, it’s that one-time issue that continues to define my future with employers and potential relationships. But that’s all in the past now, right?
Here’s what I have learned since my reputation was publicly dismantled in January 2015: The internet is not evil. That distinction belongs to those who lurk in the shadows behind false identities looking to pounce on any opportunity to shame someone.
Some people don’t hide behind masks—they’re just downright mean and have no control over their behaviour. They were more than likely bullies as children who now feel a sense of empowerment and, dammit, they have the social tools at their disposal to express that psychological turmoil. It’s sad.
Like many Canadians, I was aghast at the level of vitriol recently displayed on Twitter and Instagram towards Max Comtois, a 19-year-old Canadian Junior hockey player—and blue-chip NHL prospect—playing in the game of his life.
At Max’s expense, the world witnessed the perfect storm of combined hate and technology.
Max will be okay because of his incredible support network of friends, family and professional associates, not to mention in a few years he will likely earn more money in one-year than what his detractors earn in a lifetime. It’s a merry jest—he who laughs last always laughs best.
But what about those who don’t have the luxury of a support network or the relative fame of being a highly touted athlete or celebrity? We’re talking about the majority of the Canadian population—average people who are often victims of revenge porn or other exposed mistakes made in the past.
It could be a bankruptcy, minor criminal or non-criminal infraction, intimate image shared in the community, or even a defamatory article/allegation written or shared about them. Without the financial resources to maneuver the civil process, unfortunately they are left to deal with the aftermath and consequences of what should rightly be forgotten.
In March 2015 criminal laws were implemented to protect innocent victims of non-consensual image sharing and, more recently, Newfoundland and Labrador introduced revenge porn legislation that would allow victims to sue their aggressors. These are great leaps forward.
However, as I have debated with opponents of “the right to be forgotten” legislation – mainly Canadian lawyers and advocates handsomely retained by Google to argue Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the laws are designed to serve as a deterrent, not factoring the punitive damages associated in the aftermath of a digital privacy breach.
In other words, what’s done is done—you’re on your own now, kid! Oh, and by the way, good luck trying to restore your reputation online if you have no money.
Three things happen to the average person who loses everything when publicly exposed or falsely accused: withdrawal from community, social and psychological disillusionment, and complete economic collapse.
Some fare better than others, depending on the situation as we have seen in the cases of Canadian novelist and former professor Steven Galloway and former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, Patrick Brown.
Galloway lost a promising literary and professorial career while Brown should be the premier of Ontario today. Choosing to vigorously defend against the false allegations and public humiliation helped alleviate some of their pain and lost time, but I assure you, and hopefully they prove me wrong, they may never regain the social and economic status they once enjoyed. Their lives, much like mine, were destroyed.
Again, that’s all in the past, right? Not really.
The right to be forgotten is a complex issue that is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada. Lawyers in favour of or against corrective action to limit a person’s digital footprint are raking in millions arguing this issue. Yet, the polarizing nature of the right to be forgotten question is immersed in the minutia of legal jargon, leaving average Canadians impacted by online reputational issues to surmise the complexity of how it affects their future.
To quote famed Italian sociologist, Elena Esposito:
The right to be forgotten is directly connected with the ability to keep the future open—a ‘right to reinvention’ that protects the future of the person from a colonization by the past.
Nietzsche knew it very well when he spoke of the ‘need of oblivion for life,’ even more important than the ability to remember—because without forgetting one would remain bound to an eternal presence of the past, which does not allow to build a different future. Without forgetting you cannot plan nor can you hope.
For those who have been publicly shamed, we need hope as much as we need to be forgotten.