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The Right To Be Forgotten Panel At SXSW 2012 Debates Preservation vs. Deletion

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Pull up your most embarrassing moment in your mind, whether it's a secret or not, and pretend it's now online. Whenever someone searches your name, it's on the first page of results.

How do you feel?

That was the first question asked at the "Right to be Forgotten: Forgiveness or Censorship?" panel at this year's South By Southwest interactive conference. Led by two lawyers -- the Associate Director of ATLAS, Jill Van Matre, and Meg Ambrose, PhD candidate at the ATLAS Technology, Media and Society program at the University of Colorado -- the panel sought to philosophically address the contentious issue of privacy on the Internet.

"One of the big questions we have is how human do we want this space to be? Why do we want to keep this stuff anyways? Why don't we just let people move on and delete this stuff?" Ambrose said.

Matre and Ambrose named two emerging schools of thought: the "preservationist" and the "deletionist."

Preservationists, they said, believe that the Internet is a robust world of information and ideas, and that there should be an accepted understanding of whatever you put out there digitally is now owned by the universe.

Conversely, deletionists believe that the Internet is just a further representation of our everyday world. They believe that as these worlds have begun to completely align, we should be owed the same rights to privacy in both.

According to the panel, many laws regarding personal privacy are inadequate for the new digital age.

On such example is the case of the so-called "Star Wars Kid." The hugely viral video of the teen reenacting scenes from the movie resulted bullying of 15-year-old Ghyslain Raza, causing him extreme emotional trauma.

His parents eventually sued for emotional damages, something Ambrose said was the only feasible option with today's laws.

"You can break it down into monetary harm, representational harms or identity harms," Ambrose said. "It doesn't just harm the way that other people see you, this has an impact on the way you see yourself."

They emphasized, however, that changes to the legal system should be approached with caution, if at all.

'We don't like legal action against hurt feelings. It offends our Americanness," Ambrose said.

Many other countries, however, have embraced the idea of a right to be forgotten. Most recently, the European Commission passed legislation to protect users information. The new law means stricter privacy control over Internet companies -- including the ability of users to demand information be removed, and fines for anyone who further uses it.

But what the European Commission spins as protecting personal privacy, companies decry as a slippery slope to censorship. If one person can opt to have their history removed, where does it end?

Ambrose said that perhaps one of the best real world examples of deletionism in the U.S. is the Fair Credit Reporting Act. In 2005, the Federal Trade Commission passed an amendment to the existing act requiring that credit agencies destroy personal credit information.

From the FTC website:

Reasonable measures for disposing of consumer report information could include establishing and complying with policies to: burn, pulverize, or shred papers containing consumer report information so that the information cannot be read or reconstructed."

But you can't burn, pulverize, or shred the Internet. At least not yet.

So which are you, preservationist or deletionist? Let us know via our quick poll (below).

Quick Poll

Do you believe in the "right to be forgotten" online?

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