Seeking Digital Redemption: The Future of Forgiveness in the Internet Age

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

I. THE VALUE OF FORGIVENESS
  A. Benefits of Forgiveness
    1. Those Who Forgive
    2. Those Who Are Forgiven
  B. Forgetting and Forgiving
  C. Privacy and Forgiveness
II. TOWARD PRESERVING FORGIVENESS WITH CODE, NORMS, AND MARKETS
  A. Code
  B. Norms and Markets
III. FORGIVENESS AND THE LAW
  A. Restoration
    1. Financial Restoration
      a. Forgiving Debt
      b. Combating Stigma
    2. Criminal Restoration
      a. Restoration of Rights
      b. Addressing Collateral Consequences
    3. Immunity from Suit
  B. Protection from the Disclosure of Information
    1. Criminal Record Disclosure
      a. Sealing and Expungement
      b. Lowering Discrimination Barriers
    2. Consumer Report Information and the FCRA
    3. Government Records and the FOIA Privacy Exemptions
IV. FORGIVENESS ELEMENTS FOR THE DIGITAL AGE
  A. Thematic Network Analysis
    1. Prerequisites for Legal Forgiveness
    2. Elements of a Legal Approach to Forgiveness
  B. Toward a Suitable Approach to Oblivion in the U.S.
  CONCLUSION

The tendency to use the power of the computer to store and archive everything can lead to stultification in thinking, where one is afraid to act due to the weight of the past.

--Liam Bannon (1)

INTRODUCTION

On October 2, 2006, five Amish girls were shot and killed in a one-room schoolhouse outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (2) The Amish community, awash in grief, reacted with forgiveness. Unconditional forgiveness is a sacred power for the Amish, and because of this, they may not need to forget in order to forgive. (3) Yet how could anyone forgive an act, no matter how heinous, if they are constantly reminded of it? Even the Pennsylvanian Amish community, leaning on the strength of their piety, removed every trace of the schoolhouse within two weeks of the shooting. (4) Some degree of forgetting is required to forgive, allowing both the victim and wrongdoer, if one exists, to move forward.

Today, forgiveness has moved out of theological arenas into selfhelp books, therapy sessions, neurology labs, twelve-step programs, and personal and social aspirations. It has not, however, moved online. Due to ubiquitous connectivity and society's apparent inability to disregard gossip-worthy violations of social norms, some individuals must "forever" bear their scarlet letters. Pre-Internet indiscretions drawn in pencil may soon be carved in stone. As law professor and legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen notes, "Around the world citizens are experiencing the difficulty of living in a world where the Web never forgets, where every blog and tweet and Facebook update and MySpace picture about us is recorded forever in the digital cloud." (5) The authors of this article know something about being college students in a Facebook-obsessed time, long before its ramifications were clear. As we watch search engines and social networks shift their societal roles, we wonder if forgiveness can and should move into the digital age, where information lingers indefinitely and restricts individuals to their pasts.

Theoretical and empirical research tells us that forgiveness greatly benefits individuals and societies, but as the tragic events above suggest, forgiveness is difficult with an ever-present memory of the violation. Forgetting is an important part of forgiving. Forgetting is also the way in which forgiveness is tied to privacy. Information about our pasts can keep us in that past, preventing reform and maturation. This notion is embedded into American ideology, from migration across the Atlantic to "going West" to reinvent oneself. Today, those who have made mistakes, no matter the degree of innocence, carry that information around with them--Google attaches it to their names, and soon their faces. Information associated with an individual can limit his or her professional pursuits, the interest of potential social ties, the ability to grow, and perceptions of self. …