Erasure, or the Right to Delete Your Online Shadow

By Stuart Houghton on at

You can already delete posts on Facebook, remove ill-advised Tweets or consign Instagrams to the bin. However, California recently passed a law that requires web services give minors a simple way of removing all online information about themselves. The idea is to give kids the right to clean up any social media activity they may have made that could be used against them by bullies, or even future employers.

What this law proposes is to make erasure (as it's known) a one-button process and not to force users to navigate complex privacy settings to ensure they keep mistakes away from prying eyes.

There are a number of problems with this legislation as it stands. Firstly -- and perhaps most importantly -- California is not the internet. The influence of state law may not be able to reach sites hosted overseas or even in other parts of the United States. Secondly, the law only covers posts made by the child him/herself. If someone made a Facebook page spreading a rumour about them or posted an Instagram showing them doing something embarassing then they wouldn't have the right to take it down.

Senate Bill 568 is no magic bullet. It does however mark a shift in the way we look at social media and the value we place on individual's privacy. Similar laws are being mulled by other States in the US and elsewhere. The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has suggested the right to "rub out" photographs or posts, a proposal based on the 'right to erasure' currently being debated by the European Parliament.

The UK's Open Rights group has been a supporter of this kind of legislation, with some caveats. The ORG's Peter Bradshaw explains, "We think its a really positive move. As people put more information about themselves in public now, sometimes people make mistakes or they say things they shouldn't or that they later regret."

"It seems reasonable to give people a way of taking that stuff down when they don't think its is appropriate or if they don't want to use a particular service any more. That seems helpful especially for younger people who are perhaps more likely to do things that they might later regret.

"In the UK/European situation we've been arguing for the data protection regulations to contain this provision -- which it does, it's called the 'Right to erasure.'"

The Right to Erasure (formerly known as the 'Right to be forgotten,' a name Bradshaw describes as something of a "branding error") is part of a bill that has recently passed through the European Parliament and will now be debated between the EU Parliament, the European Commission and European Council.

Some privacy advocates argue that merely taking down your own posts does not go far enough. It should be possible, they argue, to request the removal of photos or posts concerning you, where you think that you may be misrepresented. That is the position of the Australian Privacy Foundation, which argued recently to the ALRC that Australians need the right to delete any personal information about themselves.

This is clearly problematic when you consider press freedom and the public's right to know about the activities of public figures. There is a marked difference between a 16 year old regretting a dodgy photo on a friend's Facebook wall and a politician deciding that attending a reception with a corporate donor would be best kept out of the public eye.

"This law, if it goes through, should contain provisions to protect legitimate research," says Bradshaw. "It's important not to let public figures restrict journalists from doing their job. But it should give a pretty reasonable right to say 'that was a pretty embarrassing night out, I'd rather it wasn't on Facebook any more.'"

In other words, it is just bullying or other social ills such as so-called 'slut shaming' or even revenge porn that could be affected by these new rights. As more of our lives are detailed through social media, employers are beginning to trawl our data to vet prospective employees or to monitor staff conduct.

"[The proposed laws are] in a precarious position," says Bradshaw. "Some governments -- the UK included -- are skeptical and are worried about it harming businesses or being a burden on business."

We tried to contact several Government departments for comment but no one was willing to go on record. The problem is, in part, that this kind of privacy law would have wide ramifications that could affect everything from employment law to child protection and press freedom.

That could be the strongest indication that some kind of legislation seems necessary. Inevitable, even. As we deposit more and more of our lives in various internet buckets, the more we need to be aware of how that data could be taken from us and used for purposes we did not intend. It may not be practical or even desirable to be able to erase every indiscretion, but some clarity is certainly needed, with all sides needing to understand just what is permissible.

Original image credit: RuntoftheWeb