26 January 2012


     The Internet has been buzzing with talk about the new reforms that the European Union is making to its data protection standards. Of particular interest to family history researchers is the proposed "right to be forgotten." In its most basic definition, this right is the right to have one's personal data deleted. For instance, upon your request an online entity such as Facebook would have to delete, entirely, your account and the information you placed online, not hold them in a state of virtual limbo as it does presently.
     Much of the discussion about the right to be forgotten centers on two concerns: privacy rights and commercial interests. The European and American views on these two concerns differ, with the European courts seeming to lean towards ruling for the right to be forgotten. American law currently permits a more open personal data marketplace. However, as we have seen with the Social Security Death Index and many states' laws, concerns over the privacy of personal data is becoming an issue in the States as well.
      Do we own our own histories and life events, or are these facts partly owned by the larger framework of the family and society? Are the facts of a person's past life part of history itself and not a thing in that person's possession?
     I could discuss the legal and ethical issues of this exciting topic for pages. For now, I would like to point out the ramifications for the genealogical community. The obvious impact will be the effect this obliteration of data will have on future family historians. With more and more of our personal histories and life events being recorded online, will our descendants have no way of finding us if we have disappeared?
    Can we hide our data from marketeers but preserve it online for generations to come? Or is economic exploitation the price we pay for accessible genealogical data?
     The other effects on family historians are more subtle. Could the right to disappear extend to our ancestors? Does data regarding life events and information belong to the person or the entity collecting the data? For example, is a baptismal record the property of the church or the baptised person or the community at large? Can the right be extended to the collection of personal data, i.e., could personal data be protected from being collected--a "right to not appear" as opposed to a "right to disappear?"
     Is the right to be forgotten online the equivalent as burning the parish registers and the census? How slippery is the slope of this new right?
     So many questions!