The “Undo” Button

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As much as the Internet provides us with opportunity and connects us to our friends and family across the globe, it also has a dark side. And I don’t just mean the “Silk Roads” out there. Instead, I’m thinking of the idea that the Internet isn’t very forgiving. What you post is out there forever and if you make a mistake, well, some form of it is probably still floating around on the Web. As Rooney Mara’s character says to Mark Zuckerberg in the 2010 film The Social Network, “The Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.”

We have seen some efforts to minimize this “damage,” to allow people to choose what the internet remembers about them in an a concept known as the “right to be forgotten.” In 2014, Europe’s highest court ruled “that people had the right to influence what the world could learn about them through online searches, a ruling that rejected long-established notions about the free flow of information on the Internet.”1 There is a lot of controversy surrounding this ruling, with supporters of the decision arguing that it allows people to regain their “online integrity” after a long passed and forgiven mistake, while others view it as threat to freedom of speech and expression.

It should be noted that the “right to be forgotten” doesn’t mean that the content itself is removed, just that it wouldn’t show up in a search. For example, legal documents that are removed from searches would still be part of public record. As the New York Times explained back in 2014, “[u]nder the court’s ruling, information would still exist on websites, court documents and online archives of newspapers, but people would not necessarily know it was there.”2 And while the “right to be forgotten” doesn’t exist in the United States, there are some intriguing aspects of the idea and many people who, no doubt, would like it to be implemented. Those whose names were leaked as part of the Ashley Madison, for one, or a job applicant still plagued by a ten year old arrest.

This problem seems to be particularly troublesome for public figures. In fact, until recently, there was a whole tool, Politiwoops, dedicated to archiving deleted Tweets from electeds. In May, Twitter removed API access for Politiwoops. When asked about the suspension by the Sunlight Foundation, the transparency group who ran the tool, Twitter responded, “The ability to delete one’s tweets — for whatever reason — has been a long-standing feature of the Twitter service […] Imagine how nerve-racking — terrifying, even — tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable? No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice.”3 Interestingly, in this case, it is the argument in favor of being able to delete your past mistakes that actually rests on a freedom of speech claim.

All of this poses some interesting questions. Should we have this “right to be forgotten,” the right to choose our online reputation just as we can reinvent ourselves in person? And if so, are there exceptions to this right? Are there certain people, perhaps public officials, who shouldn’t be able to remove parts of their past?

And what does this mean for everyday people? We’ve all been tagged in a photo we don’t like – sure, we’re able to detag it, but the photo is still out there. Even with Snapchat, which boasts self-destructing images, users are still able to screenshot photos. And we all know how easy it is to accidentally post a photo to your public “story” instead of in a private message. While an unflattering photo or an embarrassing snap seems pretty innocuous, many people are dealing with far more serious events in their past: arrests, legal notices, and bankruptcies, to name a few. This is perhaps most problematic when these individuals go to apply for jobs. According to research conducted by ExecuNet, a community of executives, recruiters, and HR specialists, “77% of recruiters said they used search engines to find background data on candidates. Additionally, 35% admitted they eliminated a candidate because of what they found online.”4 Past mistakes, ones that the individual has already worked hard to overcome in real life, may end up costing them a job. In this case, the “right to be forgotten” seems fair. Why continue to punish someone for a mistake for which they’ve already repented? In fact, it seems that it is these individuals who are most actively pursuing this right. As accidentally revealed Google data showed, “[l]ess than 5% of nearly 220,000 individual requests made to Google to selectively remove links to online information concern criminals, politicians and high-profile public figures […] with more than 95% of requests coming from everyday members of the public.”5

But what about public figures – business leaders, celebrities, and politicians? In some cases, the past they seek to erase may very well be relevant to the work they are doing today. As the New York Times asks, “Should a businessman be able to expunge a link to his bankruptcy a decade ago? Could a would-be politician get a drunken-driving arrest removed by calling it a youthful folly?”6 It’s true, we tend to hold our public figures to a higher moral standard and feel entitled to know more about their lives. We’ve felt the outrage and shock when we see tabloids with photos of underage actors drinking alcohol or newspapers dredging up college essays of elected officials with unpopular opinions. In this situation, a person’s “right to be forgotten” feels a little murkier. Should this type of information stay buried or do we, as the public, have a right to know?

One thing has become clear: there is no undo button on the internet and deletes are very rarely permanent. As an article for The Cut, a blog of New York Magazine, says, “Maybe it’s time to get used to the fact that there are no take-backs in the digital world.”7 Do we deserve a right to be forgotten? Maybe. But for now, we’ll have to accept that mistakes we make online can, and probably will follow us, whether we’re an average Joe or a celebrity.

Resources
1 Streitfeld, D. (2015, May 13). European Court Lets Users Erase Records on Web. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/technology/google-should-erase-web-links-to-some-personal-data-europes-highest-court-says.html
2 Streitfeld.
3 Ries, B. (2015, Aug. 25). Should we have the right to save the tweets politicians delete? Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2015/08/25/politwoops-diplotwoops-twitter/
4 Cooper, C. (2011, Apr. 12). You’ve been Googled: what employers don’t want to see in your online profile. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/google-online-searches
5 Powles, J. and Tippman, S. (2015, Jul. 14). Google accidentally reveals data on ‘right to be forgotten’ requests. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/14/google-accidentally-reveals-right-to-be-forgotten-requests
6 Streitfeld.
7 Friedman, A. (2015, Aug. 21). Living in a Post-Delete World. The Cut. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/08/living-in-a-post-delete-world.html

Featured image via Powles.

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