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Vanishing from the internet with a click

Disconnecting? That’s easy. Disappearing from the internet entirely? That’s a bit trickier. With the digitization of everything we do, we end up sprinkling highly personal information all over the web. Can this somewhat voluntary disclosure be stopped? Can we really demand the right to be forgotten by web archives altogether?

Scattering data to the four winds

Every single minute on the web, 7 million “snapchats” are exchanged, 216 million photos are liked on Facebook, and 400 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube—and each time, users leave behind a small piece of themselves. Another line of data is added to the thousands of other traces we casually scatter across the web, often with our full consent. The internet has lowered our inhibitions: we post our opinions on Facebook, outline our career path on LinkedIn, share family photos on Instagram. Every day, we unleash another “open house policy” on matters that once constituted our private lives.

Then, there is all the information floating around in the cloud without our knowledge long after it is uploaded. Remember that adorable selfie you took with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland five years ago? You posted it on social media, and all kinds of data were instantly recorded—date, time, location, camera, focal distance—you name it. Mickey himself was probably identified by visual recognition algorithms. And away it all goes into the internet archive abyss.

The internet doesn’t forget

To get a sense of how much personal information we disclose online, take a peek at Google’s “My activity” section: search history, location and travel history, favorite devices, schedules, contacts, YouTube comments—your entire digital life, or just about, in a single page! It’s not a problem so long as this information remains secret. But leaks, and even outright data theft, are a very real possibility. Phishing—the act of “fishing” for personal information—affected 2 million people in France alone in 2015. That’s 100 times more than two years prior, making cybersecurity one of the biggest challenges we face today.

Goodbye internet?

Need some breathing room? Or feel like vanishing from the internet altogether? Do you feel you have the right to be forgotten? Good luck with that. Even if you can delete your social media accounts, erasing every trace from all the websites on which you are registered takes a good memory and a lot of patience. Apps have been developed for that very purpose, which are effective, but also limited since there is no guarantee the information is ever actually erased from company servers.

Eternal virtual life?

If the internet is still around in 100 years, will our ghosts continue to haunt it?

Today, death and virtual life seem to contradict each other. But when a loved one dies, his or her Facebook page can be turned into a memorial allowing mourners to pay their respects via tablet. “2.0” cemeteries are on the rise, with e-graves for people to gather and share memories online. The “phygital” era is ushering connected graves into American cemeteries, which feature an engraved QR Code leading visitors to photos and videos of the deceased.

In a future where virtual and augmented reality are becoming increasingly elaborate, will we ever enjoy that elusive “eternal rest”? Or will we be replaced by avatars in our virtual lives endowed with our shared memories, unique inclinations and web browsing habits?

Many questions remain surrounding the right to be forgotten, and implementing this right is a complicated matter. There is little doubt that future wills and testaments will contain specific clauses regarding the fate of our digital bodies: will they disappear from the web or find eternal life in the cloud?

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