The current consensus is that information, once online, is there forever. Content permanence has led many European countries, the European Union, and even the United States to establish a right to be forgotten to protect citizens from the shackles of the past presented by the Internet. But, the Internet has not defeated time, and information, like everything, gets old, decays, and dies, even online. Quite the opposite of permanent, the Web cannot be self-preserving. One study from the field of content persistence, a body of research that has been almost wholly overlooked by legal scholars, found that 85% of content disappears in a year and that 59% disappears in a week, signifying a decrease in the lifespan of online content when compared with previous studies.
Those that have debated this privacy issue have consistently done so in terms of permanence and also neglected an important consideration: the changing nature of information over time. Our efforts to address disputes arising from old personal information residing online should focus on the changing value, uses, and needs of information over time and the ethics of preservation. Understanding how information changes over time in relation to its subject, how and where personal information resides online longer than deemed appropriate, and what information is important for preservation allows regulation to be tailored to the problem, correctly framed. This understanding requires an interdisciplinary approach and the inclusion of research from telecommunications, information theory, information science, behavioral and social sciences, and computer sciences. Recognizing that information does not last forever, this article takes the initial step of outlining an information life cycle in terms of phases in relation to information needs, creating a taxonomy to help assess the competing values at stake when one seeks to have old personal information “forgotten.”
Some of the proposed legislation make exceptions for historical, statistical, and public safety needs, but none of them include time, a vital element to the information life cycle. The article concludes by working through specific issues like revived interest, the integrity and objectivity of the Internet, and the importance of time in protecting the interests other information needs. Permanence is not yet upon us, and therefore, now is the time to develop policies and practices that will support good decisions, preserve our cultural history, and protect the future of the past, as well as protect the privacy rights of individuals that will live with the information and a society that may suffer from the threat of a permanent record.