The creator of Godwin’s Law on the inevitability of online Nazi analogies and the ‘right to be forgotten’


Mike Godwin at work. (Blue Oxen Associates)

Mike Godwin has been thinking longer than just about anyone else about why people can sometimes behave awfully on the Internet.

Nearly 25 years ago, Godwin, a Washington-based attorney, came up with Godwin's Law, which stated that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one," or, for us non-math majors, inevitability. That's not to say that the events of World War II are never the basis for useful historical analogy. But it's almost always the point at which online conversations devolve into pointless spit fights.

Last week, Godwin sat on a congressional panel to discuss the "right to be forgotten," the idea, affirmed as law in the European Union by a court there in May, that people have some right to control what appears about them online. The ruling, Godwin says, is "pretty terrible." After the panel, I asked Godwin if he had seen this moment in the Internet's evolution coming, and what he thinks about the idea of being able to scrub the Internet of those times when, in a comment thread, people behave in ways they might later regret.

When you were dreaming up Godwin's Law, did you predict there would be a time when people would be eager to see what they'd been doing online forgotten?

What became clear to me in the '90s -- pre-search engine, even pre-Yahoo, to some extent pre-Alta Vista -- was that you would get into quarrels with people, and there was always a minority of them who would be so obsessive that they would capture everything that you'd ever written to them, and they'd use it as a kind of dossier. They would either come back and quote you at you, or they might selectively circulate what you had written in order to create a story.

There's this fantasy that these people have that they have control over what they say or do online. But if I say "I love you" to someone, I can't take it back. I have no control over what happens to it after that. Words have effect in the real world that you can't take back. That's language's eerie power.

What you see underlying the "right to be forgotten" is the idea that somehow there's a sense of yourself out in the world that you can draw boundaries around. That, I think, is fantasy. I sympathize with the fantasy. I think it's a natural human impulse. But the fact is that we're connected in ways that require us to think profoundly about how we present ourselves. And we're never going to achieve the kind of control over that that one might want in an ideal world.

We shouldn't have a different expectation online than off of how much our pasts stay with us?

This is the first time in human history where individuals, in this number, have had the agency to be heard around the world on a really large scale. It used to be that you had to be at the hub of a mass medium to do it. You had to work at a newspaper. You had to work at a TV station. And if you weren't one of those people, you were a recipient. It was pretty much one-way.

Now, everyone is in the position of essentially being a publisher, an autobiographer, a poet. It's consciousness-changing. We're in that intergenerational moment where people are coming to terms with the consequences of that level of interaction and interactivity. It's new. It's unprecedented.

Do you think, then, that because we're all, in a sense, online publishers, we've developed the sense that we should be able to control what's being put out into the world about us?

Well, the thing that newspaper publishers know is that once something is out in the streets, it's very hard to go and get it back. Professional journalists have always known that you can't get the newspaper or the magazine back very easily. The traditional media have a more refined awareness of the lack of control over their content once it's out there. But for people who weren't in professional journalism, they haven't had to grapple with it. If they were writing stuff every day, it was probably in a diary that they kept in a drawer in their room.

Why do you think people sometimes behave so badly to each other online?

I've thought about this a lot. I wrote an article called "ASCII Is Too Intimate" for Wired more than 20 years ago. People were saying, when you write stuff online, the reason people quarrel was some inadequacy of communication. And once we had full-motion video streaming all the time, everything would be better.

I hated that theory, in part because it privileged one medium over the other, because that gets used as an excuse for censorship. But it's also because I realized that when you're writing, you have control over every damn thing you say. There's no accident of self-presentation. That's why during these same times we saw people start having these online quarrels we saw them falling in love without ever having met. Telegraphers fell in love with each other, too. They got to recognize each other's patterns and styles. Sometimes they would meet and it wouldn't work out. But sometimes it would.

The reason we quarrel is because we're really getting intimate connections with people, and that's uncomfortable most of the time. It's a little like being with a close talker.

What do you think of Google's implementation of the "right to be forgotten" ruling?

They get a lot of grief on the theory that they're overcomplying. I don't accept that argument. Number one, they would have gotten a hundred times more grief if they had undercomplied. And number two, their commitments to transparency on other kinds of demands for takedown of content -- for copyright, for information that might be unlawful, for wiretap orders -- requires that they be consistent about this to the extent allowable by law. I think that's really, really helpful.

Are you sympathetic about people who wake up and say, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe what I typed in that comment thread last night?"

Of course I am. I'm one of those people! It happens to me. But what I can tell you is that I've done my best to optimize my search engine results so that my most intemperate stuff is far enough down in the search results. How? By saying clever stuff again and again in the hopes that it will appear at the top of the search results. Anybody can do that. It's all learnable.

But there are all sorts of things I regret, that I wish I hadn't done. That doesn't mean I think you should give me a time machine.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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