I’ve always been an advocate for the idea that mistakes, no matter how life-crushing or embarrassing, help shape our identity. Every time I go through the mental map of my mistakes, I pat myself on the back for being able to learn from them (and for overcoming my urge to consume barrels of ice-cream and Lifetime movies whenever something bad happens). As much as I love the Internet and its ability to make my free time disappear (JOKE), I also hate its ability to complicate this self-accepting process by shoving personal errors into the public eye. The World Wide Web devours and distributes embarrassment like mothers wielding baby photos. In this day and age, you better hope your drunken escapades don’t make it onto Facebook because once the Internet has it, you’ll never get it back….unless, of course, you live in California.
California is the home to Hollywood big shots, rich women with little dogs, fancy beaches, and now, a law that allows minors to clear their Internet footprint. This “digital eraser” forces internet providers to remove certain content upon the request of a teenager, such as photos, web-posts, or other activities generated by the user. This last part is key because, as with any law, there are loopholes. Users can only ask that content they have created be removed and, even if the request is granted, the information will not be removed from server entirely, it will just be taken offline. (Meaning, don’t go posting death threats or suspicious comments under the impression that you can just erase it afterwards because you will face the very unfortunate reality when authorities show up on your doorstep.)
This law makes me uneasy for the same reason that the Internet as a concept makes me uneasy: it can be used as both a tool and a weapon. With social networking sites on the rise, the desire to craft the “perfect profile” to attract potential mates, friends, and employers is growing stronger by the second. The only thing impeding people from having the power to completely control their public image is the Internet’s grip over public content and data. By which I mean: if people are given the ability to erase the digital evidence of their mistakes, they can be anyone they want to be.
Take somone with a history of animal abuse applying for a job at an animal shelter. With a few clicks of a button, they could easily have their blog posts about how terrible cats and dogs are erased, thus creating an image of them that is entirely innacurate. Now give this power to teenagers, 90% of which don’t have the most responsible track record, and you have a formula for disaster.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love, LOVE to be able to remove the stupid questions my 13-year-old self asked on the Internet without realizing that my name would forever be linked to them. (Examples: How can I get a Fairie Paintbrush on Neopets? What does weed smell like? What are training bras for?) It’s just that most teens will not be blessed with such trivial problems. Some may fall into the trap of online bullying or sexting. They will do and say things that are destructive and they will not care because they know they can easily retract their actions or words if needed. That’s what worries me.
That being said, if used correctly, this law could be beneficial to many people. Humans are emotional creatures. We get angry and write things and post them to the Internet without any sort of rational thought, and later, once we’ve put our head back on our shoulders, we realize our mistakes and regret them immediately. It’s a natural chain of events and it can make very good people look very bad when presented in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Adults that are still haunted by comments they made when they were teens may regret not being able to erase them from a website. Teenagers trying to rebuild themselves as a better person may be able to erase the mistakes of their past and start anew (on the Internet, at least).
Ultimately, that’s where the issue lies. What effect does the ability to “erase your mistakes” on the internet have on your behavior? Should we be forced to deal with the silly things our past selves have said? Would removing the evidence of human error from the online world make us more reckless?