The implosion of JournalSpace still draws shudders from the geeks who care about this sort of thing. In January 2009, a vengeful ex-employee of the six-year-old blogging site logged into its database and deleted everything. There was no backup, no fail safe, no off-site archive.
Millions of blog posts, spanning years of lives, simply disappeared.
This was, needless to say, the the worst thing to ever happen to Journalspace, which — after a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to get the files back — shut down entirely. It was also, in hindsight, one of the better things to ever happen to me: From the ages of roughly 12 to 15, I’d logged several hundred brutally confessional, angst-ridden and otherwise inadvisable posts on the site, many of them under my real name.
Had JournalSpace’s IT manager not gone nuclear, all those posts would remain underfoot in the Internet detritus, a mere Google search away: from a college admissions officer or a hiring manager or an over-curious date.
Instead, the Internet forgot me. (And oblivion, I assure you, is a beautiful thing.)
Lately, more and more Internet-users are catching on to the slippery attraction of Internet-amnesia. Already the rage in certain European capitals, the “right to be forgotten” has slunk into the United States under the inoffensive guise of the “eraser button”: the requirement that all Web sites with registered, under-18 users allow them to nuke their prior posts when they reach adulthood.
A controversial “eraser button” law has been in effect in California since May. Similar legislation is in the works in Illinois and New Jersey. And in June, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) reintroduced an online privacy bill that would make the underage eraser button the law of the land.
“The tide is finally beginning to turn,” said Jim Steyer, the founder and chief executive of Common Sense Media, an advocacy group that lobbies for privacy reforms. “Teenagers frequently self-reveal before they self-reflect. They don’t think before they post. And we think the erase button is an easy, important way to make sure those mistakes don’t impact their futures.”
This, of course, is a sentiment with which few adults disagree: The very idea of youthful hijinks is that they remain solidly, safely in our youth. The thought that the things we did as teenagers could have, in another time, trailed us forever — preserved, like nasty insects, in little vials of amber — has rightly horrified a certain class of upstanding, well-meaning adults who want to know what can be done.
After all, these accumulated off-color jokes and Solo-cup-clenching party pics (to say nothing of the shameless Tumblr drug deals or bomb-threat tweets that earn media attention from time to time) amount to more than Internet ephemera: They’re what nearly half of all hiring managers, and a third of all college admissions officers, stand to encounter when they weigh a decision that could forever change that young person’s life.
Lou LaDonna, now 20, learned that the hard way. When the Long Island DJ was a senior in high school, he tweeted a racist slur about President Obama that was picked up by the media. To this day, if you Google LaDonna’s name, one of the first things to show up — well before the Soundcloud where he records as DJ Footworkk, or the lineup for his latest Atlantic City gig — is a New York Daily News article about the incident.
“I know this student very well and that is not who he is,” the school’s African American principal told Jezebel at the time. “He made a terrible mistake.”
Therein lies the Big Question: Should he, as an adult, get to retract the mistake that defined him as a child? And how much, exactly, can he make the Internet “forget”? There are, after all, three levels to the right to be forgotten: the right to delete things you’ve posted online, yourself; the right to delete something you’ve posted that someone else has reshared; and the right — and this is the most divisive — to delete something that someone else posted about you, but that you otherwise had nothing to do with.
California’s current law, and the ones in progress in other states, don’t tiptoe much past level one — which means they function more or less exactly like Facebook and Twitter’s existing delete buttons.
But advocates want to see these protections go further: a proposal currently under debate in Britain would, for instance, escalate to step two, letting teens request — if not receive, by default — the deletion of personal photos and other materials that someone else posted. And Steyer, of Common Sense Media, vows that his model eraser button legislation “can and will go further in other states”: erasing archived copies of posts, zapping “erased” content from a site’s internal servers, making sure that even retweeted or reshared versions of an erased post won’t live on forever.
The erase button, in its current implementation, also doesn’t address the reality that many of the most problematic things in a teen’s digital footprint are posted by her current or former “friends.” But one day, perhaps, teenagers will also have censorship power over things their friends post about them. That legislation, Steyer predicts, will look much more like Europe’s right to be forgotten; not coincidentally, he consulted the drafters of that controversial law when he was working on the eraser button.
With a click, Lou LaDonna could scrub away the traces of his juvenile mistweets: wiped from Twitter, hidden from Google, redacted from a host of Internet debates. This slope is slippery and it only goes one way.
“If we give someone the ability to meddle with someone else’s speech, we’ve crossed a line,” said Emma Llansó, the director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “That is really inconsistent with the principles of free expression.”
And yet, letting this stuff live on, perpetually confounding someone’s present and past, seems inconsistent with basic fairness. We can hardly count on social media companies like Twitter or Facebook to empower users in this way; they have too much at stake in hoarding our posts, too much money at play. And we can hardly expect teenagers, those impulsive, capricious flakes, to exercise foresight in anything.
Or can we?
While the adults squabbled about legal loopholes and privacy and lobbying and free speech, the kids, bless them, migrated to Yik Yak and Whisper and Snapchat. (Everyone knows that if you want to say something racist in this day and age, you better say it on an anonymous app.) College admissions officers increasingly struggle to find Internet dirt on their applicants. The percentage of those officers who say social media has negatively impacted someone’s chances has fallen, in the past two years, from 35 to 16 percent.
Experts like Llansó suspect that’s because teens are getting increasingly creative with how they use social networks — and those network’s privacy controls have grown gradually more transparent in response to users. Karinna Gerhardt, an 11th-grader in Seattle, loves to write and share her writing — kind of like I did, when I was 17. But if you Google her name, you’ll find articles from her high school paper and poems she wrote for a local workshop. No torrid personal Tumblr. No tortured-artist Instagrams. Definitely no JournalSpace — not that that’s an option.
Until last year, Gerhardt wasn’t even on Facebook: She relented only when it became a requirement for class.
“There’s definitely a fear factor,” she said, “that you could post one thing, and it will ruin your future.”
To cope with that anxiety, Gerhardt says her friends post their racier material to Snapchat (“everyone knows that Facebook is parentland”) and maintain a more mature, professional front on the platforms that don’t “forget.”
Today’s kids don’t need eraser laws — they’re erasing themselves.
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