History vs. Privacy: Can They Survive Together?

18 Jun 2013

I read a horrifying article in the New York Times yesterday that threatens the very idea of historical research, not to mention destroying genealogy as we know it. And if you think this is overly dramatic, guess again.


NY Times Privacy Initiative


The digital age has brought us an unprecedented age of communication. Official government websites provide access to original records. And commercial websites are also providing resources at an incredible rate. Social media websites allow us to keep in touch with each other. I have lost count of the number of people in my past that have come back into my life through Facebook and other websites. Not to mention the amount of genealogical research I have been able to do.

Now imagine a world where these resources were unavailable. Worse, still, imagine a world where the records don’t exist at all! The European Union is looking at legislation that could achieve just that.

Unfortunately, this age of communication has not come with a better sense of judgement. Many people put information out there that they are ashamed of. Certainly there is more than one photograph floating around that someone doesn’t want to see published. There are also those who are trying to put the past behind them by trying to wipe it off the face of the Earth. This ranges from people who make minor mistakes in high school to those who commit serious crimes as adults.

All of these people are working to erase themselves. They feel that they should have the option to remove themselves from the internet. This includes search engines, newspaper websites, social media, and more. It could even extend to government records.

The European Union is considering legislation that would grant to individuals a “right to be forgotten.” This would allow people to delete references to themselves online, whether they created the references or not. Major internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more, are valiantly fighting this legislation. It is one thing to allow people to delete their own content, it is another thing entirely to allow people to delete content created by others.

The technology companies have now found an ally in l’Association des Archivistes Français (the Association of French Archivists).  The AAF argues that email, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media websites contain the “correspondence of the twenty-first century.” They rightly fear for future historians. “If we want to understand the society of today in the future, we have to keep certain traces.”

This fight will likely continue for awhile. And it will spill over to America and the rest of the world. This is a difficult challenge for us as genealogists. The best part of genealogy is being able to flesh out ancestors. Imagine being able to erase yourself from the record. Descendants might not even know you ever existed. Imagine how poor a place that future would be.