Memory removal is the real world right to be forgotten

Privacy news
5 mins
Illustration of a group of people with one person's face blurred out.

We’ve all got memories that appear from nowhere, the ones that make us bite down on a clenched fist and lower our heads in crippling shame.

What would you give to forget these memories as easily as you can delete a forum post on the Internet?

There’s an increasingly thin line between the real world and the Internet. It’s a line that’s undoubtedly blurring and it surely won’t be long before there’s no discernible difference between what’s ‘real’ and what’s not.

The Internet of things is a massive step towards an almighty fusion between what exists only on the Internet and what’s currently considered exclusive to the real world. There are also hosts of VR (Virtual Reality) machines being released this year, in what will literally be a headfirst dive into a digital cyberspace.

But some things still have clear boundaries, don’t they? All that can be done on the Internet cannot possibly be done in real life — things like deleting a hasty comment from a forum or even erasing yourself completely.

Your Right to Be Forgotten on the Internet

There exists a right to forget on the Internet. It’s a concept that has been in place in the EU since 2012 and it allows people to:

“…determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.”

In practice, it lets people erase themselves from search engines.

It’s quite easy to exercise your right to be forgotten from the Internet, at least in principle. It’s just a form you fill that’s widely available from the search engine you wish to be deleted from.

Google’s form requires the applicant to identify their country of residence and personal information, then provide a list of the URLs they wished to be removed from, along with a short description of each one. A valid ID must also be presented.

Once all the data is submitted, Google will consider the request. If it’s granted, Google will delete links to all the information you wish to be dissociated from.

The right to be forgotten has featured prominently in the news of late, after Google altered its search settings. Before, anyone who requested a right to be forgotten in, for example, France would not have the same right to be forgotten in another country. It was often a simple case of using instead of to find any information that Google France had erased.

Google has now closed this loophole, by forcing you to exclusively use the search function for the country that you are currently browsing in (unless you have a VPN, of course) — meaning you can no longer circumvent the right to forget rules.

Specifically in America, there are concerns about how the Right to be Forgotten will impact on the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. There’s also the argument that the right to be forgotten might decrease the quality of the Internet through censorship and rewriting of history.

Opposing concerns point to problems such as revenge porn sites appearing in search engine listings for a person’s name or references to petty crimes committed many years ago.

There are good arguments for and against the right to forget online, but it’s a long way from erasing memories IRL. We can’t make ourselves forget things we’ve done it the real world. Can we? We can’t actually eternal sunshine our spotless minds, surely?

Oh yes. Yes, we can… (In theory, anyway).

The answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Science. The answer to life, the universe, and everything.

You Can Be Forgotten IRL Too – It’s Possible – It’s Science

Once upon a time, scientists believed memory to be a complex filing process where particular memories are stored in particular sections of the brain.

But those scientists were wrong, and it’s now understood all memories are stored across every inch of the brain. When something is recalled it’s because cells in the brain fire up new connections that link and rewire the circuitry of your headspace. This change in the brain is facilitated by proteins.

These proteins are essential for keeping memories. No protein equals no memory. This theory has been tested by giving animals a drug that prevented the proteins from forming. The results were quite remarkable — the animals had no recollection of anything that happened immediately after being given the drug.

Building on this research, scientists found a way to target long-term memories. Each time a memory is reflected on, the workings of the brain change slightly due to the actions of the proteins. As a result, the brain and the memory alter slightly each time the memory is recalled.

Perversely, this means the more you reflect on an old memory, the less accurate the memory becomes.

Further experiments on rats have shown that if the protein-blocking drug is administered while a particular memory is being recalled, this memory will be erased.

Over time, scientists have discovered specific drugs that target particular proteins in the brain. A terrible emotional memory can be dealt with by targeting proteins in the emotional regions of the brain, for example.

There are many great uses for such a treatment, especially for patients suffering from mental issues born of trauma, something like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, perhaps.

Matrix Blue Pill Red Pill
Let’s talk about the red pill some more. Will there still be cocoa and Netflix?

Taking the Blue Pill

But what are the ramifications of such a thing? It’s one thing to delete your online boo boos, but a pill to delete them in real life — is this too far?

Let’s take it even further. The online right to forget erases your virtual past from other people. Could there come a point when someone is given the right to erase their real life past transgressions, by forcing other people to take a memory-erasing pill? Could a court enforce such a thing?

As the online and real world meld into one, what is the actual difference between deleting things online and erasing details in the real world? Essentially it’s exactly the same thing, isn’t it?

Should someone have the right to erase their past from the memories of others? What would this mean for freedom of speech? What would it mean for privacy rights?

There is a way to forget in real life, but how far should we take it?

Would you take a pill to erase painful memories? Should people have the right to force others to forget? Let us know in the comments below!

Featured image: apinan / Dollar Photo Club
Science: apinan / Dollar Photo Club

Johnny 5 is the founding editor of the blog and writes about pressing technology issues. From important cat privacy stories to governments and corporations that overstep their boundaries, Johnny covers it all.