Ctrl + Z

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 09 Aug 2016

Member Reviews

Ctrl-Z is an unnecessarily difficult read, barely qualifying as a book. It covers an exceptionally interesting topic in quite possibly the dullest way possible.

Ctrl-Z is a clever title for the book – although the subtitle “The Right to be Forgotten” is more informative. The right to be forgotten is a new concept that has only emerged in an era of mass digital storage. Before written records, the only way things were remembered – events, personal details, etc – was through human memory. Over time these memories degraded, and memories shared became unreliable, until eventually the information was forgotten.

To take an example, imagine Caveman Pete – in his youth – proposes to Cavewoman Sandra, who dramatically and embarrassingly refuses. While the event itself may be painful, as time goes by the memory fades – while his friends may joke about it over the following months, eventually they stop as other events occur. If Pete decides to move to the next village, the proposal may never come up. As proximity in both time and distance fades, so too does the memory.

The same is true – to a lesser extent – with regard to written records (prior to digitisation). A newspaper article may mention that Pete dressed up as a unicorn in his proposal to Sandra, but in 5, 10, 15 years, it will be hard to find that article. The paper copies will eventually all be thrown away or disintegrate; you may be able to find the article on microfilm stored in a library archive basement, but you would need to make some effort to find the article, and knowledge that the article was out there in the first place. For people who are introduced to Pete many years later, that particular story won’t be readily available.

Online, the past remains fresh. The pixels do not fade with time as our memories do…Since we live in a world where we tend to choose “archive” instead of “delete”, everything is saved.

We live in a new era – let’s say I am a prospective employer and Pete interviews for a job at my firm. I decide to Google Pete’s name and – because his surname is Keflinski -immediately find an article from 20 years ago describing how Pete dramatically proposed in a unicorn outfit, only to be turned down. In fact there is even a video of the event. Not wanting clients of my firm to associate my firm with the unicorn video, I decide to hire Kevin instead.

Now that we have what feels like an infinite memory with immediate, seemingly perfect, recollection, the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ has emerged as a artificial construction to counter the negative effects of everything being remembered all the time forever and ever amen.

You may have heard about it because there was a widely publicised court case where the Court of Justice of the European Union said that Google had to remove certain weblinks from their search engine because the events they describe no longer had the relevancy that displaying them on the first page of Google search results implied.

Most of the discussion has been around spent convictions – that is, news articles describing offences that occurred a long time ago, and which are still listed when the convicted person’s name is searched, even though that person has since paid their debt to society. The idea is that in order to fully rehabilitate past offenders, society has to have some mechanism of forgiveness – and that forgiveness is hindered if a society is unable to forget about past offences.

You may well think that concepts of rehabilitation, forgiveness, etc are all pretty woolly and if someone did something wrong then they should never be able to forget it. Fine – but the right to be forgotten can also apply to other things; for example, if you are a victim of a serious offence then you may well be named in news articles. It may well cause serious distress if, for the rest of your life, searching your name on the internet brings up those very same news articles.

(This seems like a good time to say that if you Googled my wife’s maiden name a few years ago, the very first result was Spanking Erotica. I’m assured there’s no connection. Pun intended.)

Being able to wriggle free from one’s past to strive for something better still resounds with some Americans.

There are other ways to slice the debate; you may well have sent a tweet that,with years of hindsight, embarrasses you. Should you have the right to delete it – for that public message to be forgotten? Does your answer to that question change if you were a child or teenager at the time you sent the tweet? Adolescence is partly about experimenting with who you are, and you may well have extreme (usually unfounded) views, testing out different personas. Should those personas follow you for the rest of your life?

Balanced against this are ideas that we also hold sacred, such as freedom of speech; should courts really be telling Google what is newsworthy and how to list search results? If we allow the deletion of tweets, are we erasing history – in a manner scarily like Orwell’s 1984? Do we have an obligation to remember?

I find this pretty interesting stuff – especially in terms of how to legislate in such a complex moral landscape. But Ctrl-Z never really grasps the nettle. Here’s a quote:

The central thesis of Ctrl-Z is that a digital right to be forgotten is an innovative idea with a lot of possibilities and potential

I mean. Yes? But this tells you nothing about what the author thinks – what is the polemic in this book?

I feel confident in saying that the book is almost certainly made up of several academic papers on a generally related theme stitched together – rather than being written as a book. Now, anthologies of papers are fine, but are marketed at someone who is already familiar with the area common to the papers. Ctrl-Z does not serve anyone as an introduction to a pretty complex topic. Especially when most of the sentences seem crafted as a logic puzzle. I’m still not sure what this means:

The ability of these movements to decrease discoverability of the information hinges on whether disclosure of the content can be punished within the limitations of a given interpretation of the freedom of expression, whether they are properly enforced and whether removal can be effectuated.



Most of the book is a tour though various legislation and debates that other people have had “Professor X has this to say…Dr Y wrote such-and-such.” but never am I sure what the author thinks about this. It’s almost always a study of individual trees with no regard for the forest.

The book also takes a lot of space dissecting the draft version of a European Regulation – which (as the book notes) is probably going to change in the time between the book being written and the book being released. So even though I read a pre-publication version of the book, it was probably already out of date!

It’s a shame because this book is an opportunity to really influence public policy, and to inform consumers of digital rights and why they matter. But it doesn’t – it decides to be an insomnia cure instead.

I should make a couple of points clear though – I’m very much reading this from an uninformed perspective (and I believe this is the audience the book is marketed towards). For those already immersed in the debate, I have no doubt the book will be far more useful. The detail is there – and as a reference it would work well. But the overview is what is missing, the map guiding the reader through the debate is simply not there. Secondly, I received a pre-publication copy of the book through NetGalley in exchange for a review. If I didn’t feel obligated to read it, to write the review, I’m not sure I would have finished it.
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Do you ever Google yourself to see what others can find out about you?  I do, in an effort to retain my privacy.  In the modern age, "privacy" is losing its meaning, as more and more people publish all kinds of personal information online, thinking that it is safe there.  It's not.  CtrlZ makes that point in detail.
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As someone who teaches Computer-Mediated Communication, explaining to students the reality of the internet and how nothing is ever really deleted is an increasing problem in the 21st Century. I'm very thankful that the internet did not exist when I was a teenager or college student. This book reviews a serious topic that few really consider in the digital age.
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Every generation of technical advancement brings with it both new capabilities and new issues. Mankind has been writing stuff down for much of his history, and depending upon the period in question, some of that writing has survived to present day.

However, it is really in the past century or two that mass communication has become more preserved.  We think nothing of reading letters, articles or texts written in the 19th century. Occasionally these writings may shock our modern-day sensibilities, as what was perfectly acceptable and common language might now be offensive or taboo.

With the dawn of the 21st century, things changed yet again. Mass communication became available to anyone with a computer keyboard and an internet connection. If you had something to say, you could say it, potentially to the whole world.

And there was an additional change. Mass storage of data became cheap-very cheap. It now became feasible to capture and store "everything". The email you wrote to your brother, the complaint form you filled out on a merchant's website, a hateful rant you posted on a bulletin board- all became immortal. When coupled to modern computers with the ability to index and sort through all this information, the world changed.

Now it was entirely possible for anyone, at any time, to find and read anything written. Go on drunken rant on social media complaining about , and it could be pulled up and recalled next week...next year...potentially forever. And it could be easily found by loved ones, colleagues, employers, potentially anyone.

And this is what CTRL+Z is about. All of this information is captured, and much of it is remarkably easy to find. But the law has not yet caught up to this reality. Most law governs the exact opposite case- copyright law is more about the author's right to be remembered. But now we need laws protecting the author's right to be forgotten.

The book takes on that task. It is, unfortunately, closer to being a legal text than a mass-market book, but it does a great job of analyzing this issue, and discussing the legal issues surrounding it.
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