Should the Internet Forget?

By Andrew M. Haines
April 7, 2018

Facebook's demise is overdue, in my opinion. Mostly because the platform vitiates against sane, human contact, and because it leaves us "alone without books" as Dostoevsky's underground man laments. But to a lesser degree, because its behemoth business model has relentlessly consumed an important space for timely conversations about technology, ethics, and anthropology. Now, at least one of those conversations is unfolding in real time.

At the forefront of the current scandal is a revelation that Facebook deleted messages sent by Mark Zuckerberg—something normal Facebook users can't do. In this case, "deleted" means totally destroyed. That's not a common thing for a company that specializes in capturing and controlling data.

Destroying data was already a discussion flash point for some in the technology world who thought that permanence seemed wrong. Facebook's fall from grace made it a common concern. The company's policy was no doubt designed to protect the privacy of its executives. And that seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Over-the-top backlash based on claims of unfairness misses the mark. Facebook offered a free service, and had a prerogative to protect its own interests. However, in doing so, it set a clear double standard for what the value of privacy meant for corporate and public users.

Now, after Cambridge Analytica and with more shocks to come, we can ask: Should the "internet" really be an eternal record of everything anyone's ever said or written? Does permanence cut against the remaining shreds of humanity left for social networking? Or does the prospect of anonymity or impermanence pose too much risk for forming accountable, human structures for communication?

The answer is at least as complex as the problem. Taking analog communication as a model, computer-based communications fulfill a wide variety of roles. For each role, a different level of permanence or impermanence, accountability or flexibility is required. The real difficulty won't be in deciding what makes sense in any given case, but deciding how to restrict cases to the most appropriate tools.

Facebook as a surrogate for humane personal connections has been a travesty. But it's big and the thud will be loud. That might at least help us to remember just what we're getting into the next time we sign up to blur basic parts of our nature with rules we make up as we go.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.