Google as a Memory Crutch

A recent study that made waves found evidence of people recalling less information, and instead store the location of the information in memory. How much should we freak out about this?

This issue is not entirely new. Plato warned against the written word proclaiming it would produce forgetfulness:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. 

– Plato’s Phaedrus

Was he right? Surely the benefits of writing outweigh the fact that people were relying on their ability to find the text as opposed to recalling the text itself. Writing was the first form of communication with durability. However, the fleeting nature of orality had benefits (encourage strong community, adapt to information changes, and embody information), as do the exercise of human memory (creativity and academic performance).  We are now posed with same question. Knowing what we know now, can we make a better decision?

What is the difference between supplanting memory with physical writings and digital content? Books required money to print -quality control and censorship were an inherent part of the process of being published (more similar to human memory). Physical books were not full-text searchable. They relied on a card catalog to be found – the book could be found by subject, author, and title. Once the text was found, the index was the finest level of search detail. Libraries and book stores had limited space, which required collections management to determine what was the most valuable to their patrons and customers. Information in a book was not instantly accessible anywhere.

Do these differences, and others, matter?  Would Plato be satisfied with the way writing shaped society? Would he have said he was wrong? Writing has created a different type of thinker, and the Internet will certainly do the same. We must be reflective as this change occurs and ready to react the signs of disappearing social values.

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Request for Removal of Criminal History Denied

A mother, Joanna Snyder, was denied her request to limit the press from reporting on her criminal past by Judge Howard Whitehead, who explained, “I have no authority to control the press.” Snyder claimed that the stories upset her teenage daughter, but the information was brought to light by her recent criminal activity, not a reporter drudging up the past.

This issue could have arisen at any period in history, internet or not, but it brings up an interesting caveat of the lifecycle of information and privacy. Information may lose its value over time, because, among many reasons, it no longer accurately represents its subject – the subject has changed, but the information has remained the same. After information has decreased in value, the privacy rights of the subject may then outweigh the First Amendment rights of access and/or expression.

However, not all information follows that lifecycle. The information about Snyder’s past has either always been valuable as a representation of her or has become valuable again as an explanation of her criminal activity.  If Snyder had not been arrested again and the information no longer reflected her life, the information would not be of value. The problem with the internet, of course, is that information that no longer has value or represents its subject remains online, shackling the subject.

Protecting Tweeting Stalkers

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William Cassidy, of California, is charged with online stalking for posting emotionally distressing Tweets about a Buddhist group and its leader in Maryland. The defense claims that emotionally distressing speech is protected by the First Amendment when it is done on a public platform. All 50 states have statutes that protect cyberbullying, cyberstalking, or cyberharrassment, but Cassidy was charged with the federal crime of Interstate Stalking (18 U.S.C. 2261A(2)).

As always, the appropriate analogy must be sought out to handle this type of conduct. Shanlon Wu likens the Tweets to handwritten notes.  Eugene Volokh offered the difference between threatening phone calls and the street corner; one may not call a person directly to make distressing claims, but can address a public audience in a public space. I think this is the correct analogy for this instance where a speaker is located such a great distance from the subject of the comments.

However, if the speaker were in Maryland and the public forum was the only way to reach the victim, the subject would feel the same type of intimate threat as one sent from a cell phone. Twitter allows the victim to be exposed to the distressing comments when he or she is alone, creating the same vulnerability, anxiety, and fear stalking statutes seek to avoid.

Beyond analogies, the issue may come down to statutory interpretation. The  relevant section of the statute reads:

(2) with the intent
(A) to kill, injure, harass, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person in another State or tribal jurisdiction or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States; or
(B) to place a person in another State or tribal jurisdiction, or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to—
(i) that person;
(ii) a member of the immediate family (as defined in section 115 [1] of that person; or
(iii) a spouse or intimate partner of that person;
uses the mail, any interactive computer service, or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce to engage in a course of conduct that causes substantial emotional distress to that person or places that person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to, any of the persons described in clauses (i) through (iii) of subparagraph (B); [2]
shall be punished as provided in section 2261 (b) of this title.

Physicality may comfort some, but distance is at the heart of this statute. It seems silly to have a section that prohibits interstate communication if distance is a powerful point for the defense of expression. Second, the statute clearly says any interactive computer service. If the court decides that Twitter is like yelling on a soap box, then the statute may not hold up.  The Constitutionality of cyberbullying statutes do not offer much guidance, because the statutes relate to student-conduct and the involvement of educational institutions, a different standard entirely.

Because this type of expression chills other expression (I would have gotten off Twitter and moved to the middle of no where, like Kathy Sierra, if this had happened to me), the Internet may force courts to explicitly and concisely address and weigh the value of certain types of content. High-value vs. low-value speech – let the games begin!

The Right to be Forgotten

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A recent NY Times article entitled Just Give Me the Right to be Forgotten chronicles the author’s experience removing her information from a dental care marketing service list.  This was easy. Then she explains she, as a US citizen, had no right to force the company to remove her information. This type of data removal is one form of the Right to be Forgotten, and, in my opinion, a no-brainer.  People should be able to remove data collected about them. The ease with which the data is removed, however, makes me question whether we need to invest in developing a “right” for deletion. Perhaps “best-practices” and the market can handle this issue.

There is a second type of information removal that is much more interesting. The most illustrative example of this right is occurring in Spain, where surgeon Hugo Guidotti exercised his right to remove information regarding a lawsuit related to his allegedly botched breast augmentation he performed.  The Spanish government agency has insisted the content be removed from US search engines, including Google. French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated, “Regulating the Internet to correct the excesses and abuses that come from the total absence of rules is a moral imperative!” Google is fighting back in court, saying removal would be expensive and violate the objectivity of the Internet.

The US has been watching this issue with fascination, but I don’t get the impression anyone is considering it seriously – well, except me.  Writing a well-tailored law to help users move on from negative content seems possible.  Delineating the appropriate type of information, time frame, form and degree of removal could support both privacy and protect against censorship.

Like all issues related to the Internet, we must choose the right analogy.  Is the Internet an information dumping ground that must be consciously cleaned up to protect values we hold dear? Is the Internet a library? Is it a market, a town hall?  I cannot come up with an analogy that is completely free of some sort of caveat to expression.

What is the “objectivity” of the Internet? What are we protecting by not allowing this toxic information to be removed at some point? What are we losing by insisting it must remain? Are we letting people move on to be productive citizens or rewriting history? The big question: what do we want the Internet to be?