The “Right to Forget” a Genocide

The EU ruling on Google and the importance of forgetting

The recent EU High Court ruling on Google states that people have a right to request that search engines delete links about them. Immediate concerns were raised about the feasibility, the cost, and whether this would turn Google into an “,” effectively giving anyone the power to white wash their past. And those are very good concerns.

Most of the discussion has centered around how Google searches can impact jobs and dates. People “don’t want their drunken pictures to follow them the next 30 years,” said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at Oxford who recently wrote a book on what it means to forget in the digital age. And he certainly had a point.

But what about a genocide? Is there a right to forget a genocide? Or at least the ethnic divisions upon which a society fractured and bled?

It may seem like an extreme jump, from drunken adolescent photos to genocide and ethnic cleansing, but the shape, and filters, of a society’s memory is always more than just about individual embarrassment or advancement. What we know about people, and how easily we can identify or classify them, is consequential far beyond jobs and dates, and in some contexts may make the difference between life and death.

“Practical obscurity”—the legal term for information that was available, but not easily—has died in most rich countries within just about a decade. Court records and criminal histories, which were only accessible to the highly-motivated, are now there at the click of a mouse. Further, what is “less obscure” has greatly expanded: using our online data, algorithms can identify information about a person, such as sexual orientation and political affiliation, even if that person never disclosed them.

In that context, take Rwanda, a country many think about in conjunction with the horrific genocide 20 years ago during which more than 800,000 people were killed—in just about one hundred days. Often, stories of ethnic cleansing and genocide get told in a context of “ancient hatreds,” but the truth of it is often much uglier, and much less ancient. It was the brutal colonizer of Rwanda, Belgium, that imposed strict ethnicity-based divisions in a place where identity tended to be more fluid and mixed. Worse, it imposed a national ID system that identified each person as belonging to Hutu, Tutsi or Twa and forever freezing them in that place. [For a detailed history of the construction of identity in Rwanda read this book, and for the conduct of colonial Belgium, Rwanda’s colonizer, read this one.]

Few years before the genocide, some NGOs had urged that Rwanda “forget” ethnicity, erasing them from ID cards.

They were not listened to.

During the genocide, it was those ID cards that were asked for at each checkpoint, and it was those ID cards that identified the Tutsis, most of whom were slaughtered on the spot. The ID cards closed off any avenue of “passing” a checkpoint. Ethnicity, a concept that did not at all fit neatly into the region’s complex identity configuration, became the deadly division that underlined one of the 20th century’s worst moments. The ID cards doomed and fueled the combustion of mass murder. [Perhaps the most accessible single book about the Rwandan genocide is this one.]

Since the genocide, Rwanda has indeed chosen to legally “forget” ethnicity. There are laws against ethnic identification (called “divisionism” or “sectarianism”). Ethnicity has become a hushed subject, and there are reports that a substantial portion of society chooses not to discuss their own, or others’, ethnicity openly. To be clear, this is not happening in a perfect democracy, and there are real, justified and growing worries that these laws are being used to suppress dissenting speech. I am not even attempting to scratch the surface of that complexity, nor defending current legal practices in Rwanda which certainly have worrisome aspects, but simply pointing out that the right, and the choice, to want to forget can occur in settings most lawyers and engineers in Palo Alto may well not be thinking about at all.

They should start.

Overall, “never forget” and keep every speck of memory atrocity alive is rarely how countries recover from massive spasms of violence, especially if the conditions that sparked the violence don’t just disappear. Rwanda, or a future case of ethnic cleansing, may seem like an extreme case to raise, but as the next billion comes online, such questions will become less and less theoretical.

Our model of post-massive violence societies has tended to be European, but to think that this is a repeatable model of “how to remember” a period of mass violence is misleading in multiple ways. One, the United States played a special role in rebuilding Europe, first through an occupation and then through massive aid and a military alliance, which greatly eased the tensions under which most of Europe, at least Western Europe, was operating in the post-conflict era. Second, that history has had an impact: Europe has strong hate speech laws—and like it or not, these laws have a context which resonates with many Europeans. It was not that long ago that a fire that was lit partially by hate speech burned their continent, leaving behind tens of millions dead, some in gas chambers. Third, Europe did forget—”miraculously”, there were hardly any Nazis to be found in 1946, and the de-nazification only went so far, mostly in order to return to peace. Fourth, a lot of post-Europe was built on strategic forgetting: the role of Vichy France, for example, and especially what happened in Western Europe (we are, it often seems, happy enough to talk about Eastern Europe). In any case, last I checked, even Europe has not proven to be a model of ethnic harmony in a post-national nirvana. It had a simmering potential civil war, divided mostly by ethnicity, right within its own borders, in Ukraine.

In fact, this strategic forgetting, Ernest Renan pointedly wrote, lies at the heart of almost every modern nation:

Now, the essence of a nation is that the people have many things in common, but have also forgotten much together. No French citizen knows if he is Burgundian, Alain, Taifale, Visigoth; every French citizen must have forgotten the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the massacres in the Midi in the 13th century.

This reality, that we often choose to “forget” so much—and move on—may offend our sense of justice, but peace and justice have reenacted this exact game of see-saw repeatedly in history, just as free-speech and right-to-forget have, and will, in the future.

But now it’s also Google’s problem.

So, let’s get back to Google and the EU ruling—and the substantive considerations. It must be fairly clear that, similar to the way the colonially-imposed ID that hung over Rwandans as a literal death sentence, online information has the potential to doom people—based on ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Obviously, this is not just about blaming the existence IDs, or just Google, or how information plays out in complex contexts, but to point out that information always plays out in complex contexts.

I know that the knee-jerk response to the EU Google ruling in many technology companies will be to curse overzealous regulators, and I have not written a word about the specific ruling because I’m neither a lawyer, nor really interested in the specific legal point, at least in this post. However, these questions of identity, representation, and what information about you that Google shows the world, outside of your own control or wishes, is neither simple nor to be dismissed as the work of busy-body nanny über-state, and the fragile egos within it. The current legal decision may well be overdone or misplaced, but the question of who holds the keys to our collective memory is one that deserves a discussion, and not just left to a few companies. The stakes and the burden is too high.