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Could a social media eraser law save an over-sharing generation?
California's pending internet "eraser button" law gives minors a way to (partially) expunge their digital walk of shame
For some perpetual-posting teens, it could be too late.
For some perpetual-posting teens, it could be too late. (Courtesy of Shutterstock)
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alifornia's legislature recently passed a landmark law giving minors the legal right to scrub their internet history clean. That means, if Gov. Jerry Brown (D) doesn't veto the bill, anyone under 18 will be able to digitally erase any Facebook harangue, indiscreet Instagram, impolitic tweet, or any other web posting that doesn't age well.

The new law will protect "the teenager who says something on the Internet that they regret five minutes later," said California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D) after the upper chamber cleared his bill on Aug. 30, sending it to Brown's desk.

"Kids and teenagers often self-reveal before they self-reflect," agrees James Steyer at Common Sense Media, which pushed for the California law. "It's a very important milestone."

Who would oppose such an act of humanity? After all, people can often have their juvenile criminal records expunged or sealed when they turn 18, so why not extend the same courtesy to job-seekers trying to rid Google of that embarrassing photo they sent to their boyfriend in high school?

There are some open-internet advocates who oppose the law on the idea that regulating the internet always had unintended consequences. "We are principally concerned that this legal uncertainty for website operators will discourage them from developing content and services tailored to younger users, and will lead popular sites and services that may appeal to minors to prohibit minors from using their services," the Center for Democracy and Technology told California lawmakers, to no avail.

More sympathetic critics of the new law also "warn that in trying to protect children, the law could unwittingly put them at risk by digging deeper into their personal lives," says Somini Sengupta in The New York Times. "To comply with the law, for example, companies would have to collect more information about their customers, including whether they are under 18 and whether they are in California."

And then there's the possibility that teenagers will come to think of the law as a sort of digital version of the Amish Rumspringa — go do whatever you want, you crazy kids, and all will be forgiven when you come to your senses. The internet, of course, doesn't work that way.

"Before minors celebrate by temporarily posting offensive jokes or pictures, the bill wisely provides that there is no guarantee removal by the initial website ensures complete elimination of the materials from the entire web," says Travis Crabtree at eMedia Law Insider.

Not only doesn't the law require the internet companies to remove the data from their servers, Crabtree notes, it also "only applies to content actually posted by the minor and not those pictures posted by the teen's friends who have less scruples."

It's not that California couldn't fix those shortcomings. In Europe, for example, an EU electronic data protection directive lets all Europeans — not just minors — "object to the processing of any data relating to himself," says Eugene K. Chow at The Huffington Post.

So when then-Formula One chief Max Mosley discovered in 2008, on the website of Britain's News of the World, that anyone with a internet connection could watch a covertly recorded video of his participation in what the website alleged was a "sick Nazi orgy" with multiple prostitutes, he could do something about it. Mosley had "the legal grounds to sue Google in Germany and several other countries," says Chow, and he "could even compel the internet giant to filter out the raunchy videos."

The European Commission's proposed "right to be forgotten" law would take those privacy rights and turn them up a few big notches. The controversial proposal would essentially give all Europeans the right to demand that tech companies erase any data they hold on a petitioning individual. The European Commissioners are still trying to work out how to best balance privacy rights and free speech concerns, but if we give teenagers an internet "eraser button," why not adults, too?

For one thing, the U.S. is not Europe, says Chow at The Huffington Post:

Despite the American myths that tout the individual as the pillar of society, European privacy laws have a more deeply rooted respect for individuals as evidenced by Europe's long tradition of prioritizing people over newspapers, photographers, and more recently, tech companies.... American laws frequently prioritize free speech at the expense of individual rights. [Huffington Post]

Nobody is arguing California's SB 568 is a perfect solution to the looming problems of a generation that seems to collectively have little hesitation about posting embarrassing and career-limiting stuff online, but at least the Golden State is taking a stab at the problem.

And while a national law would have a bigger impact, what California does matters, attorney Mali Friedman tells The New York Times. "Often you need to comply with the most restrictive state as a practical matter because the Internet doesn't really have state boundaries."

So if you're an internet firm, you "may have to reassess the cost-benefit analysis of collecting certain types of data from minors," or even whether it's worth letting them use your site or app, says Cynthia Larose at Privacy and Security Matters.

On the other hand, she adds, if you worry that, "given the types of things minors deem appropriate to post on social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, our country won't be able to produce an electable candidate for president in 40 years," laws like California's internet "eraser button" will help ensure that "many more of our children could become president someday."

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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