The ethics of the right to be forgotten – the ethics of the hippocampus

Requests and questions and pleas on the right to be forgotten now surface from everywhere. An ethical perspective on the issue helps us to respond. Ethics are the rules of conduct needed to live, to go beyond oneself and be present in a world shared with others – to be a part of a community, to be together.  It is the duty of each member of this community to reflect upon the ethics shared, and contribute to the shared system of rules and values that establish the way we live together. As citizens, we can influence, in this deliberation, the laws which dictate what is allowed, or forbidden.

Is there a universal code of ethics ?

Such a system would only apply when the need to share the rules of living together are made as imperatives. As we now witness a universalization of the Internet, we must also urgently respond to the global scope of the phenomenon with a universal code of ethics.  The right to be forgotten and, more specifically, the rules debated over search engines pertaining to this right, give us an extraordinary occasion to look for the ethical light where currently there is none. A globally respected code for Bioethics never succeeded, though the Internet will surely bring forth this light to us all.
If we look for opponents to a code of ethics (in this sphere), the forces of money and dogma would probably be the most formidable. Both alienate powerfully. Money for money’s sake blinds those who see it as an end unto itself.

And dogma leaves no room for the point of view of another. It excludes the search for communal rules except for those who have the same convictions.

Thus, reflecting on the rules of a communal life implies a consistent return to discussion and mediation. All of us should be encouraged to adhere to these rules without difficulty – if not with the happiness provided by the fact of living in relative harmony with oneself and others.  For “the right to be forgotten,” what might be the necessary compromises for the construction of an ethical code at a European level, at a universal level ? Moreover, why does the ability to forget play such an important role in the field of human relations?

Why is this issue at the heart of the discussion between citizens
on one side and search engines on the other?


At a very basic level, the ability to forget is a filter used by our memory to construct this personal space of freedomin which we elaborate our own rules. Memory sorts, selects, processes and rejects to create a solid structure that is the “house of our personality’, an area vital to flourish.  Metaphorically, almost organically, forgetting (selecting what to forget) is the vacuum by which we breathe. It frees us from what oppresses us; as a biological means of survival, it functions to liberate us from our pains.  Sleep participates in our ability to forget, as do periods and practices of mourning.  The freedom and the ability to forget are a part of being human, and are a part of life,
as it is a necessary filter to memory.

The Ethics of the hippocampus

Humankind possesses an extraordinary sorting machine, the hippocampus, our primitive brain. Its role is to select useful information to send to our cortex. We propose to replace the terminology of “ethics of the right to be forgotten” by “ethics of the hippocampus,” to insist on its very human aspect. Our sorting method is simple, modeled on that of the hippocampus, and based on the calculation of the sum of least pain. Our “Ethics of the hippocampus” uses the scale as far as calculating the suffering of users involved, and advises forgetting as a filter of pain.
As an example, consider a person who in the past participated in a pornographic film.  Upon becoming a father or a mother, he or she asks Google to delete all links to this past action.  This person is simply removing a point of one’s past that pains him or her personally and perhaps to his or her family.  Speaking privately of this past is a personal choice; keeping one’s intimacy exposed in the public sphere – online – is indeed another. Now, let’s calculate the damage that erasing this past would incur on the web.  Deleting the links associated to it would lead to a reduction in traffic on internet sites that took advantage of the film, potentially lowering their profits. In this case, the ethics of the hippocampus, the consideration of the pain of the individual, take precedence over financial logic. Financial logic should simply not weigh upon the scale.

One may argue that not removing things from the internet is a positive thing for society: it would force one to walk the straight and narrow line from the start. Of course, anyone who deviates from this line would be condemned to a life-sentence regarding his or her reputation. They would fear the consequences, and act accordingly. People would start to change the way they behave. One can easily see the danger of such a society, as it is reminiscent of a book we all know well by George Orwell, a society founded upon fear and totalitarianism.( In non-democratic societies the internet is being used to this end, and should these people not have the right to remove things that could incriminate themselves?)  A certain right to grow up is part of life, as well, and forges humanity; the child learns to walk by falling, and laws should impose the prescriptions of life – not the other way around.

Our ethical code does not propose to rid the world of pain and hardship. But it would confine this pain to the private realm and to one’s personal sphere, where it belongs.  Making what is private public against one’s will crosses a line – an ethical one – and will inevitably lead to the courts.

The ethics of the hippocampus claim the human right to make mistakes, and defend the usefulness of the ability to forget.
Our traces should not be used to track us down.

The Ethical Committee of Reputation VIP