"Right to Be Forgotten"

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"Right to Be Forgotten"

A reading list for the Arena Stage Production

What is “the right to be forgotten?"  Besides the name of the play coming to Arena Stage in October, it is also a legal right in much of Europe, which allows individuals to apply to media and internet companies to have links to past indiscretions like debts and small crimes erased from search results. Advocates claim utility for people like victims of revenge porn, while those opposed contend it can allow history to be re-written and violates free speech rights. For those who have seen A Right to Be Forgotten, the following books can add to your understanding of the issues it raises. 

Why would anyone in the real world want this? So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson is a good starting place for anyone interested in deep thinking on issues of the repercussions of social media and internet fame. Ronson interviewed people who were caught doing something – making a bad joke on Twitter or a mistake at work - and were publicly vilified, and finds out what happened to them once they faded from public view. It analyzes what this tendency to shame means about internet culture. Should we forget people’s worst – or maybe most misunderstood – moments? Can we?

Similarly, If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say by Leila Sales is a compelling young adult novel which tackles this issue through the story of Winter Halperin. We’ve all said something dumb on the internet. For most of us, it didn’t really matter. This book is about someone whose real dumb thing got caught. When Winter Halperin posted a thoughtless tweet with racial overtones, it went viral and suddenly she’s everywhere. She knows she didn’t mean it the way everyone’s reading it, but that doesn’t stop people online from saying they wish she was dead, and it doesn’t keep her friends on her side. Winter wants to become a better person, but how can she rehabilitate her reputation and convince everyone – and herself – that she means it? Winter certainly makes a mistake but she isn’t a monster. This book will make you think about internet outrage and how it could manifest itself in the life of an ordinary person.

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey is incredibly timely in the #MeToo era. This novel opens with Lena, who suspects that a powerful senator, Victor, killed a young woman whose death was ruled accidental. He assaulted her when they were young and she didn’t report it, knowing that she wouldn’t be believed and now knows it is her duty to take him down. But is it even possible? The narrative shifts between multiple viewpoints, and raises questions about the value of truth and facts if no one believes them. Maybe letting things be forgotten will only lead to their recurrence.

Another novel that tackles issues of sexual impropriety on the internet is All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin. Nina married into the wealthy Nashville elite and although she's starting to feel tensions in her marriage, she's always been proud of her son Finch. However, when she learns that a picture of a half-naked, passed out younger schoolmate was circulated on Finch's Snapchat with a racist caption, she wants him to make it right. Finch claims he does, too, but does he? The girl in the photo, Lyla, doesn't want her father Tom to make waves about it - she likes Finch and thinks making a fuss will only make her social life hell. The story is narrated by Nina, Tom and Lyla and they all have vibrant and realistic responses to the situation. Should youthful indiscretions ruin lives? How can we ever learn to be better without facing consequences? And what are appropriate consequences?

But the internet’s not really that bad, right? After all, it spreads information to those who don't have access to it and need it - movements like #MeToo wouldn't be possible without the decentralization and open access of the internet. But the internet is actually terrible! Turns out letting everyone say whatever they want with few to no consequences hasn’t just led to a world where “no one knows you’re a dog” but actually leads to a world where people’s worst selves are at the forefront. Rather than being a bastion of high, enlightened discourse, much of the internet is a raging garbage fire. But this wasn’t inevitable! The offensive Internet: speech, privacy, and reputation, edited by Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum traces some of the real social, technological, and legal choices that have led to our current internet and contains some suggestions about how to course-correct and change its culture. If you want a more recent publication on the same topic, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Citron discusses cyber harassment and argues that we must apply civil rights law to the internet proactively.

But still, privacy is important. Worried about your own life, and what may be online about you? I’ll close with recommending Protecting your internet identity: are you naked online? by Ted Claypoole and Theresa Payton. This book has concrete advice about how to reclaim your identity online, and protect yourself and tailor your online persona. Most of us can’t actually completely erase our presence from social media, much less Google, so finding a realistic middle ground between going totally off-the-grid and putting your social security number online is key. This book contains thoughtful and realistic descriptions of governmental access to your personal data, as well as legal analysis of the actual right to be forgotten.