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Remember that embarrassing picture you posted on Facebook after a night out with your friends? The one that you forgot about, rediscovered seven years later, broke out in a cry of terror, and immediately deleted that part (or parts) of yourself from your page? Seeing the picture vanish, you sat back in your chair, and breathed a sigh of relief that your past momentary indiscretion need be only that – past and momentary.
If only that were true. As it turns out, the picture may have been deleted from your page, but rather than disappearing into time memorial, sat stored in a humming server somewhere at a social network’s data-hosting location. Facebook, for one, keeps track on its servers of every single item that you ever click or word you ever post – a permanent record.
While this may surprise some readers and come as no surprise to others, recent trends around the globe have been to fight this corporate practice by placing the consumer, whether they acted responsibly or not in the initial posting of their information, back in control of the destiny of their data. The best example of this trend to date seems to be occurring within the glassy, garishly modern buildings of the European Commission. In its seemingly endless pursuit to create ever more “rights,” the Commission has recently announced that it intends to create the “right to be forgotten.”
Much as it sounds, the right will loose individuals within the Union to request social networks, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, to delete everything the individual has ever published and to delete everything the social network has ever stored relating to the individual.
To add some bite, the EU also intends to create a power to fine any company found violating this newfangled “right” up to two percent of the company’s global revenue. Although seemingly a small percentage, for a company like Google with more than $37 billion of global revenues in 2011, the sum is shocking.
So what could be wrong in trying to “help build trust in online services” by placing people “more in control of their information,” particularly when specifically designed to protect teenagers and young adults who lack awareness as to the repercussions of their actions on social media?
Completely aside from the fact that the EU’s seemingly endless creation of “rights” only cheapens in the minds of the public what is a true inviolable right, what is wrong is that the right seems to lack all clarity as to just how far a company must act in order to satisfy its strictures, namely how much data the company must seek to delete. Once a post or picture is posted on Facebook and before it is deleted, it may be copied, picked up by other individuals, spread onto other sites, thumbnailed by Google, and spawned like an internet version of rabbits. It is not at all clear if the company must seek to remove not only the version the company possesses in its services but also all traces that exist throughout the electronic superhighway. If such were required, it would be easy to see, as some European Commissioners have decried, that the right is doing nothing less than requiring Google to sensor the web.
While it may be debated that consumer protection is needed in order to protect the less than sensible among us, a category which even includes Congressmen, as evidenced by Congressman Weiner’s sexting debacle, it is clear that any legislative solution must be clearly formulated, precisely delineated, and free from any risk of prodigious expansion. It is unclear whether a right to be forgotten would ever stand as constitutional in the U.S., but it is seems very likely that the European Commission’s “right to be forgotten” is only adding further traffic jams to the internet superhighway rather than installing airbags.
A solution must be found, but it is much more likely to come from consumers decrying the actions of the companies providing the services and requiring better protection. If consumers, not government, act, a deleted picture on Facebook will not be in the past only momentarily, but permanently.
–Tim Van Hal