The Right to be Forgotten? The Right to be Remembered?


imagesRelatively new high profile public debates about privacy rights show that the right to privacy is selectively applied in a manner that silences some voices and privileges others.

Recently in Spain, a man brought suit against Google to compel the search engine to take down links to a 1998 newspaper article mentioning that the man’s home was repossessed. These links appeared when the man’s name was “Googled.” Ruling in the man’s favour on May 13th 2014, the European Court of Justice (the EU’s highest court) rejected Google’s argument that they are only an indexing service and are not responsible for content. The court upheld what is being called the man’s “right to be forgotten.” One commentator on the ruling further stated that while ordinary people have a “right to be forgotten,” the court’s ruling will not apply to “public figures, or people in whom there is a genuine public interest.”[1] The digital record has a duty to preserve their significant historical achievements for posterity. The ruling follows closely on the heels of a 2013 law passed by the European parliament that regulates data privacy. This law in fact was adjusted when it was argued successfully that it would be virtually impossible to erase a person completely from the internet, rendering the “right to be forgotten” a moot point legally.[2] Nevertheless, the EU court’s ruling in the Spanish man’s case ensures that historical records that are, in the 21st century, “born digital” will continue to reflect the gaps in the paper historical record of the 19th and 20th centuries, where ordinary people’s voices are underrepresented and their importance as historical actors is greatly diminished.

At the same time that the Spanish man struggled for his right to be forgotten, the families of nearly 1,200 disappeared or murdered aboriginal women in Canada are fighting for the rights of their partners, mothers, sisters, daughters, and granddaughters to be remembered. The Canadian government continues to reject claims for an inquiry into the disappearance of these women between the 1980s and the present, a disturbing (to say the least) pattern of violence and official neglect that authorities neglected to act upon for years.[3] An inquiry would consolidate existing evidence and could produce new leads as well. The evidence an inquiry would accumulate would become part of the historical record, helping to ensure that the disappeared women, forgotten in the past, may not be forgotten in the future.

Reluctant to document the missing and murdered among society’s most vulnerable, modern governments are nevertheless zealous in the surveillance of the citizens of their own state and others. Glenn Greenwald, who helped to break the Edward Snowden story, has uncovered that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) planted secret bugging devices in U.S.-made equipment, such as servers, that were still in the factory, before they were shipped to overseas clients.[4] Timed to coincide with the publication of Greenwald’s book about Snowden, the revelations of bugging confirm that the U.S. government, like the Chinese, is using domestic electronics manufacturing for international espionage. Of course, when it comes to industrial espionage or espionage against a foreign government, there is no recognized right to privacy. However, the NSA certainly has not been shy about snooping within American borders. In just one month last year, the NSA is reported by Greenwald to have captured data from 3 billion phone calls on emails passing through the U.S. [5]

Governments in the U.S. and Canada, and elsewhere, are continuing a lengthy record of selectively applying the discourse of privacy rights in a manner that privileges some voices over others. Absent in matters of “national security,” the right to privacy suddenly materializes when government wishes to secure itself against evidence that it is not serving, even perhaps injuring, citizens. When Canada’s current Conservative government cancelled the mandatory long-form census in 2010, it cited the concerns citizens supposedly had raised about invasion of their privacy by census takers. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner actually reported only very sparse evidence of citizen complaints. With the census cancelled, a gap is created in the record that makes it difficult for providers of social services – such as education, health, and poverty reduction programs – to measure their successes and failures, especially for different target groups that the long form helped to capture, such as low-income earners.[6] Cloaking itself in privacy, government insulates itself from data showing the effects of cutbacks on well-being. Census data is as well a crucial source for social historians. The loss of data on unpaid labour, recognition of which was a marked accomplished of Second Wave feminism, only begins to sum up the diminution of the national story. Historians in the next century will struggle to piece together our era’s history, again especially where it concerns ordinary people whose voices already are partly silenced by posterity.

In yet another contradiction, the right to privacy that protects people from the census evaporates when publicizing ordinary people’s lives serves dominant? political interest. The Imperial War Museum in the United Kingdom, as it ramps up to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, has recently announced that it will place a record online of every single soldier, nurse, and other person from Britain and the Commonwealth who served in the war. In this “permanent digital memorial,” 4.5 million individuals will each have their own web page. Data from government records will be uploaded by the museum to these pages. Crowd sourcing is expected to fill in other information. Envisioned as a “cross between Facebook and Wikipedia” people are encouraged to post information about veterans publicly.[7] Actually, the project is a worthy social history venture. It promises to recover information about the many faceless and forgotten that served, especially Commonwealth soldiers from overseas Dominions whose histories are not as often remembered. But presumably no one is worried about the soldiers’ right to privacy as their lives (and, one would think, deaths) are posted to the web for all to see. This could of course change if crowd sourcing brings to light war resistance, pacifism, less than heroic deeds, or anything else that embarrasses the jingoistic tenor of some of the  British World War I commemorations. Although the Imperial War Museum should not be unfairly implicated in the undue celebration of the war, it is evident that British government wishes to celebrate in the “right way,” as Conservative British Education Secretary Aaron Gove put it publicly a few months ago. To Gove, this means commemorating honour, sacrifice, and the rightness of Britain’s First World War I cause.[8] A group calling itself “No Glory in War,” penned an open letter earlier this year that expresses grave concern that a “human catastrophe” is being re-imagined by David Cameron’s government in an anniversary to be marked, in that prime minister’s words, as something on a scale of the “Diamond jubilee celebrations” that in 2012 commemorated the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession.[9]

In fact, Canada, has a smaller version of this recovery that will digitize and make available the service files of the 650,000 Canadians who enlisted as soldiers, nurses, and chaplains in the Canadian Expedetionary Force in World War I.[10] In their book, Warrior Nation, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift argue convincingly that the Harper Conservatives are eager to pour attention and federal money into revisioning World War I as a patriotic triumph for an imagined Canadian “warrior nation.”[11] However, as the Canadian government learned not that long ago, ordinary soldiers have a funny way of not falling into line with modern day jingoism. In 2010, the Conservative government offered Canada’s last surviving World War I veteran, Jack Babcock, a state funeral. Fighting for his right to be remembered the way he wished, Babcock turned down the government’s offer to drape him in the warrior flag. He also offered these words: “I hope countries think long and hard before engaging in war, as many people get killed … What a waste.”[12] Babcock’s powerful reminder of the tragedy of war and the dehumanizing effects of modern conflict – a point of view that many, many veterans undeniably share – is not commemorated on the Veterans’ Affairs webpage devoted to Babcock’s memory. The page quotes the words of Prime Minister Harper and the former Minister of Veterans Affairs Jean-Pierre Blackburn. There is not a single word from Babcock himself on the page.[13]

By engaging with contemporary politicization of privacy in Canada as elswhere, scholars and other critical citizens can point to the ways that the right to be forgotten and right to remembered are selectively applied in a manner that too often serves powerful interests and ill serves everyone else.


Photo Credit: The Edmonton Journal/Brian J Gavriloff



[1] “Google must respect ‘right to be forgotten.’” CBC News. Accessed 13 May 2014.

[2] “EU votes to pass sweeping online protection.” CBC News. Accessed 13 May 2014

[3] Daniel Leblanc, “List of missing, killed aboriginal women involves 1,200 cases.” Globe & Mail Accessed 13 May 2014.

[4] Glenn Greenwald, “How the NSA tampers with US-made internet routers,” The Guardian Accessed 13 May 2014

[5] David Cole, “‘No Place to Hide’ by Glenn Greenwald, on the NSA’s efforts to ‘Know it All.’ The Washington Post  Accessed 13 May 2014; Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby, Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

[6] Krista McCracken, “Census Data: A Lost Resource,” Accessed 13 May 2014.

[7] Sylvia Hui, “First World War sacrifices will live on through digital archive,” Vancouver Sun (13 May 2014): B4.

[8] Jonathan Weir, “What is the ‘Right Way’ to Commemmorate the First World War?” Accessed 14 May 2014.

[9] Open Letter. How should we remember the first world war? No Glory in War 1914-1918. Accessed 13 May 2014.

[11] Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in An Age of Anxiety (Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2012).

[12] Steven Maynard, “Activating Foucault for Canadian History,” Accessed 13 May 2014.

[13] John “Jack” Babcock 1900–2010 – Salute!  Accessed 14 May 2014.

Ellis, Jason

Ellis, Jason

Jason Ellis is a historian and an Assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC.
Ellis, Jason

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Jason Ellis is a historian and an Assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC.