Question originally posted to Jewish Values Online, 1/07/16
What are the Jewish values surrounding the "Right to be Forgotten," developed in Argentina? Should we have to perpetually face the consequences of an action even if it is out of date or far in the past?
The question is, if I am not mistaken, based on a law that a person has the right to request that a negative report, incident, or embarrassment may be requested to be scrubbed from the internet.
A first question one might have: who decides whether an incident is either minor enough or long ago that it should no longer be publically accessible? How is that right determined? Right now, internet giant Google is the sole determiner. After a request by an aggrieved party is raised, Google makes the decision to remove information from the internet on the basis of finding something they deem “irrelevant, outdated or otherwise objectionable”or “incorrect, inadequate or misleading”.
The latter is a clear directive in Jewish law. Leviticus 19:16 directs us not to ‘go about a talebearer’, i.e. do not spread dishonesty. The verse continues to state that a person should also not idly stand by the blood of his or her neighbor. The Talmud states that the proximity of the two verses is intentional: one who slanders his fellow, it is as if they spilled their blood (Bava Metzia 58a). So it is clear that not only should Google remove false and defamatory information from the internet: they do a mitzvah be removing it.
However, the former; that is, removing information from the internet that is irrelevant or outdated; is a subjective standard. Should Google remove a photo of a person drunk or doing drugs in one’s youth? Does a potential employer have the right to know that you were irresponsible when you were young? Or do you have the right to force Google to hide that ‘memory’ from everyone?
Google is operating as an arbiter of fairness. The Jewish standard for this is the idea of forgiveness is Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah, the ‘laws of repentance’. In this text, Rambam lays out that a person must do several to be forgiven: ask the individual they offended for forgiveness, ask for ablution from God at Yom Kippur, and (possibly most importantly in our situation) prove they have changed their ways. If a person is still making the poor decisions, (adultery, drug abuse, hurtful speech, etc.) is Google capable of knowing? I suppose a person can still have allegations made by third parties in the near term that will continue to be relevant.
The ongoing case of Marc Gafni is instructive. Gafni has a history of sexual misconduct going back several decades at multiple Jewish institutions. What if he applied for, and was granted, the right to have older misdeeds scrubbed? What if the result was his appointment to a position in which he sexually harassed or abused another person? A grave error would have occured, because the truth would have been obscured. There's no indication that Google has clear guidelines to avoid this from happening. And if an organzation wants to hire or not hire Mr. Gafni, they have the right to make that decision based on the truth, regardless of whether it occured last week or two decades ago. The Torah teaches us 'Write what is honest those words that are true' (Eccles. 12:10).
Google, as a business, is not in a particularly good position to make these judgements about who and what deserves to be forgotten. In theory, it could become a very lucrative business: any crime or misdeed can be removed for the right price. the inherent conflict of interest for Google makes them a poor choice as the final decider of these important and difficult moral choices.
Judaism believes in forgiveness. It believes that people can change. It also believes in truth, and that discerning individuals can decide for themselves whether an embarrassing mistake from a decade ago is still relevant. I don’t think Judaism would affirm the current version of the ‘right to be forgotten’. One must be careful and moral in deciding what gets scrubbed from the internet, and Google probably isn’t the right organization to make that judgement.