The right to be forgotten and the power to delete

Recently, Google was taken to court in a case in which a Spanish man, when searching for his own name, found a several-year old article according to which his house was being auctioned because of his refusal to pay his taxes. Google, however, argued that it should not have to remove such material. When employers google job applicants mistakes committed years ago might have detrimental consequences for individuals.

As a technology of memory, the Internet can be used to prevent memories from fading into oblivion. At the same time, it has raised questions concerning how long material should be preserved online. The online existence of humiliating or other content that might be unfavourable to individuals has prompted discussions concerning the right to be forgotten. In a fascinating book published in 2009, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger proposes that in order to solve this problem expiration dates on online information should be introduced in order to facilitate forgetting.

In March 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping was seen with his wife Peng Liyuan during his trips abroad. Chinese newspapers such as the Global Times praised the “first lady”, arguing that “she enjoys great popularity among Chinese and is widely viewed as a tremendous element of China’s soft power. Now as the first lady, it is time to present such soft power on the world stage”. Positive appraisals in foreign media of Peng’s visits were gathered in a Global Times feature. An article in another state-run newspaper, the China Daily, similarly stated: “Peng’s graceful and glamorous international debut as first lady highlighted China’s new soft power diplomacy”.

However, around the same time as Chinese newspapers praised Peng as a glamorous source of Chinese soft power, images showing the first lady, who is a singer, in military uniform serenading military troops in Tiananmen square at the time of the crackdown in 1989 were circulated online by Chinese netizens. Government censors quickly moved to delete the image, which had been found in a 1989 issue of the magazine People’s Liberation Army Pictorial. Foreign media, however, covered the story.

This episode is interesting in the context of deletion in cyberspace. Deletion in this case, however, only takes place within China. As far as soft power goes, then, this deletion might do more harm than good to China’s soft power. Of course, the aim might be twofold—to improve China’s soft power (internationally) and to improve Xi Jinping and the CCP’s legitimacy domestically by arguing that the first lady increases China’s soft power. Deletion may serve the second purpose while it has an adverse effect on the first.

In addition, the incident demonstrates that some have a power to delete that others do not possess. China’s first lady’s past could be deleted within China. The Spanish man mentioned earlier, on the other hand, had to take a multinational corporation to court in order to attempt to have his past deleted. Of course, Peng Liyuan’s past is in this case significant not only for her but for the CCP. The deletion is part of a larger orchestrated effort by the CCP to delete and forget (and make others forget) what threatens its rule while remembering what is beneficial to it. Chinese author Yan Lianke calls this “amnesia with Chinese characteristics”.

The discussion of these issues raises several pertinent questions: How far should the right to be forgotten be extended? Should it apply to public figures such as politicians? Should organisations and collectives not be granted this right? Regardless of the answers we come up with to these questions, it is quite clear that there are those who have the power to delete (at least to a greater extent than others) and that they are indeed exercising it.

April 21, 2013

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