Digital Personhood, Time, Religion: The Right to Be Forgotten and the Legal Implications of the Soul/Body Debate

This paper addresses questions of legal personhood that have been coming to the fore in European courts in recent years through what has been termed the “Right to Be Forgotten.” These cases center around conflicts between the permanence of online information and the desire of users to instead make their own determinations about what personal information is accessible to others and when. I will argue that while Courts have sought to find a balance between public rights to information and individual rights to privacy, they have failed to address the core social exigencies that lie beneath these conflicts. Furthermore, the Courts’ decisions currently put the onus of determining what is permitted to be de-referenced (and when, and how) on search engines, which would seem to be an odd arbiter of personhood. While court cases consider the rights of “data subjects,” people are busy re-inventing what it means to be a person today, both during and after biological life spans. Indeed, the issues at the heart of the concept of personhood are connected to fundamental human rights and so should be analyzed in these terms. Underestimating or overlooking these concerns of human agency will make it impossible to find legitimate solutions to conflicts of personhood that will only increase as technology develops. To that end, I will argue that religious traditions can offer precious contributions to our cognitive understandings of the possibilities for people and their development. Ancient ideas such as “dispositions for the soul” show how there has long been demand and legal support for the desire to influence our post-humous being. Similarly, online posthumous services continue to grow, while leading scientific research supports conceptions of cognitive processing that extends beyond the confines of the body. It is to these kinds of ideas and models that we should turn if we are to find meaningful ways to support people as they “make” their lives: online, offline and everywhere in between and beyond.

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