The Right to be Forgotten
Erasing your actions is a lot harder than deleting an internet post. Here's what it takes.
In March of 2008, two brothers in their 70’s had an argument about money at a seaside restaurant in the Italian coastal town of Pescara. One brother stabbed the other with a fish knife and was arrested. Alessandro Biancardi, a journalist in the small town, heard the details from the police and knew he had a hot story for his small news website. Fast forward a decade and that journalist is now unemployed and at the center of a huge debate over internet privacy laws. What happened?
Several years after the stabbing story was published, one of the brothers demanded that it be deleted. Biancardi refused. True, the brothers were arrested after the fight, but the assault-related charges against them were effectively dropped when the authorities did not pursue them. The brothers sued Biancardi, claiming the article was damaging their reputation, and cited Europe’s “right to be forgotten” law. The law goes back to the 90’s and says a citizen can request that a company or website take down material considered old, irrelevant, inaccurate, or excessive. A few years ago, the European courts ruled the law could even be used to force Google to delist material from its search engine results.
In 2013, an Italian judge ruled against Biancardi and ordered him to delete the stabbing story, saying the information in it was old and the brothers had the right for it to be forgotten. Mr. Biancardi appealed the judge’s decision to Italy’s highest court. In 2016, the appeal was rejected. Last September, exactly 13 years after his news site was started, he had run out of money from all the litigation and had been ordered to remove so many stories, he had to shut down the site. In the US, lawmakers are looking at Europe’s privacy laws, including the right to be forgotten, as a model and are considering similar legislation.
Is the right to be forgotten in fact a right? According to the Torah, are we entitled to have our actions, our behavior, our conduct be erased and forgotten?
Teshuva: The Ultimate Delete Button, with Conditions
In the second chapter of The Laws of Teshuva, the Rambam writes that even though we can do teshuva, repentance, the entire year, the Ten Days of Teshuva culminating with Yom Kippur, are designated times to reflect and feel remorse for mistakes we made and things we did wrong. If we do, our efforts are accepted immediately, and we are granted forgiveness and pardoned. What we have done to God is forgotten.
But then the Rambam qualifies his words:
Teshuva and Yom Kippur are effective for the things you did to violate God's trust and expectations, but the hurt you caused, the damage you did against other people, that requires you to not only ensure full compensation, but make sincere amends. If you make the effort and ask three times and the other person doesn’t forgive, then they in fact become the transgressor.
We do subscribe to a right to be forgotten and forgiven. However, unlike the European law, that right has a condition, a prerequisite. There must be sincere remorse, genuine regret, true commitment not to repeat the mistake, and importantly, a heartfelt and authentic apology. Then and only then does the perpetrator have a right for his or her misconduct to be forgotten, so much so that after a sincere apology, the burden shifts to the aggrieved to forgive.
Moreover, according to Jewish law there is prohibition to cause one pain through verbal mistreatment. For example, one may not remind someone of their past misdeeds.
We can erase the parts of our lives we are not proud of, but we have to put in the hard work.
Judaism does recognize a right to be forgotten, but it is not a blanket entitlement; it must be earned. We can erase the parts of our lives we are not proud of. We can edit our history and we do have a right for our mistakes, poor judgment and bad decisions to be forgotten. But we have to put in the hard work.
Teshuva is not as simple as deleting a post, clearing our browser history, or doing a hard reset on our device. It is about transforming ourselves, taking stock of our lives, using the feelings of shame and regret not to get stuck in the past, but to shape a brighter, better future. The best way to have parts of the past forgotten is to become a different person in the present, not the same one who did, said, or wrote those things.
That is exactly how the Rambam describes teshuva working:
Teshuva occurs when one distances himself exceedingly from the thing wherein he sinned, to the point his identity changes, as if saying: “I am now another person, and not that person who perpetrated those misdeeds”, to completely change his conduct for the good and straight path.
It isn’t enough to do the right thing going forward, we have to take responsibility and be accountable for what we did in the past. We have to find the people we have hurt with our nasty emails, nasty looks, or nasty behavior and we must ask forgiveness. For the behavior we regret to be forgotten, we need to find the people we injured in business, socially, online, or offline and we must make real and meaningful amends.
The Right to Forgive and Forget
While the right to be forgotten or forgiven isn't simple, the Torah does encourage the right to simply forget. We should be predisposed to forgive, let go, and look the other way.
Let's not use our selective memory to overemphasize the bad, the shortcoming, the hurt, the times people didn’t show up and we forget their virtues, their good, the times they came through. It has been said, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Forgiveness ultimately is about us, not them.
We always have the right to forget, even when it is not earned by making nothing of the hurts or insults. Our sages say that if we expunge the negative from the files we have on others, God will expunge the negative from our own files.
Last year a former Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, was sentenced on Wednesday to serve 10 years in prison for the fatal killing of an innocent man she shot when she mistakenly entered his apartment believing it was her own. The victim’s 18-year-old brother, Brandt Jean, took the witness stand and spoke to Guyger, saying, “I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you… I personally want the best for you.” Brandt then asked the Judge if he could give Guyger, the woman who killed his brother, a hug. The judge said yes, Brandt stepped off the witness stand, they embraced and Guyger broke into tears.
If this man could forgive the person who killed his brother and give her a hug, we can forgive the small slights, hurts and injuries we have incurred. We can dig deep and hug the people who didn’t really mean to hurt us, maybe they were insensitive or thoughtless because in fact they were just hurting themselves. So we weren’t invited to someone’s wedding. So our birthday came and went and our children or grandchildren didn’t even call. So we extended ourselves for a friends and it wasn’t reciprocated. So someone walked by and didn’t say hello. There are so many broken relationships and so much dysfunction because we choose to remember instead of forget.
Don’t hold a grudge or look for the fault. Let go and move on, and you'll feel a huge relief. We don’t have a basic right for our wrongs to be forgotten. We need to own up, seek forgiveness, and make amends. But we absolutely have the right and even responsibility to forget. Let’s use it to let go of things that don’t matter in the long run and to avoid drinking a poison that will only prove lethal to us.