So, you’ve posted something stupid online. We’ve all been there. Whether it’s an angry rant, an unfortunate phrasing or an embarrassing photo, sometimes the Internet remembers the worst parts of your life.
Or does it?
A new law passed in California compels web companies to take down a post if a minor simply requests it. The law takes effect in 2015.
The legislation has its limitations, though. For starters, the legislation does nothing to protect against bullying. The law only applies to posts published by the youths themselves. It doesn’t apply to posts put up by other people or if the image is copied and posted on another website.
Additionally, adults cannot go back and request the removal of something they posted as youths.
The law also forbids companies from marketing products that are illegal for minors to purchase, such as tobacco and alcohol, to underage web users. It also prohibits web companies from sharing minors’ identifying details with third parties for marketing purposes.
It’s an interesting idea, and some have even compared it to juvenile offenders who have their records sealed or wiped when they turn 18.
Ethical and practical considerations around Internet privacy have been in an especially bright spotlight in Canada since the deaths of Rehteah Parsons and Amanda Todd. Both teenagers were victims of bullying, often online, after explicit photos of them were widely shared.
Measures like California’s so-called “eraser” law wouldn’t have been enough to protect the teens. Their photos were shared by other people without their consent. California’s law uses examples like bragging about drug consumption on Facebook and other acts of individual idiocy.
Legislation in Europe, however, may have been powerful enough to protect the teens. Under the European Union Data Protection Directive, anyone can “object to the processing of any data relating to himself.” The directive allows people to sue web companies such as Google in Germany and several other countries, and could even compel Internet entities to filter out the content.
There are legal and practical barriers to enforcing laws as broad as this.
It’s virtually impossible to completely remove something from the Internet, as Beyonce learned after unflattering photos of her Super Bowl performance spread around the web. Her publicist asked Buzzfeed to take down some of the photos, which only caused more of a stir, with the photos then popping up on Gawker and Imgur.
Sadly, it’s not just funny photos of celebrities that live forever. Last week an ad for a dating website using Parsons’ photo surfaced on Facebook. The social network apologized and the offensive ad was removed.
Photos live on smartphones, in text messages, on thousands of sharing services and are often impossible to trace. The feasibility of actually finding and deleting these images is almost negligible for most people.
Legal barriers also prevent similar legislation being from being passed in Canada. Though the Parsons case resulted in stronger anti-bullying laws in Nova Scotia, it could become difficult to balance one person’s privacy with another’s right to freedom of expression when bullying and outright attacks are less obvious.
Where it is difficult for legislators, though, some private companies are stepping in to address the need.
Reputation.ca is a Toronto-based online reputation management company that boasts it can both bury unwanted or embarrassing search results and “promote positive results” for businesses and individuals. But you’d better be ready to pay. The site charges $3,000 up front and $2,500 per month for their “search engine reputation management services.”
The website does offer free advice, though for “helping your teen protect their online reputation.” The advice is similar to what can be found on other sites, telling parents to have a discussion about online safety with their children.
The advice, which includes reminders that everything posted on the Internet is public and stays on the Internet, is useful for people of all ages. Once it’s out there, it’s out there, so think twice before you click “send.”