October 17, 2013

New law allows kids to erase regrettable social media postings


This kid regrets nothing.

Kids! You know them: they’re all over the Internet posting things they might not want to remember someday, like this and this. So, to save them from the consequences of their youthful follies, California has recently passed a law, SB 568, that allows minors to request that postings be permanently deleted and commits social media sites to making sure that happens.

SB 568, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown in late September and will go into effect January 14, 2015, actually addresses two contested issues around minors and the internet: it prohibits websites from advertising a long (and enticing) list of goods to minors, among them alcohol, firearms, tobacco, drug paraphernalia, tattoos, spraypaint, fireworks, “obscene matter,” UV tanning, and lottery tickets.

And it permits kids (parents apparently don’t need be involved) to request the “complete or comprehensive removal of the content or information posted on an operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application by the registered user.”

However, it makes no provisions — and has no control over — re-postings or copies of the post, which a number of commentators have pointed out ultimately makes it pretty useless. Especially because if it’s really something regrettable, I’d guess the chances of it being reposted and passed around are much higher—nobody’s really reposting your 90th picture of your cat on your bed. It also appears to conflict with other rulings: for instance, since a Facebook “like” is now free speech, if a post is liked and then removed, the case could be made that the liker’s First Amendment rights are being infringed on.

And more generally, the law raises giant practical and intellectual issues. Gregory Ferenstein at TechCrunch weighed in:

To have any sort of teeth, the law will eventually have to permit the erasure of data that has been reposted, archived, or interacted with. And, as a result, must create a grow a whole new body of case law dedicated to choosing when the right to be forgotten trumps our right to share and discuss information.

Similarly, Eric Goldman at Forbes took this thing to pieces, writing that:

To the extent it overrides the limited cases where websites/apps would justifiably choose to restrict content removal, the law may harm the information ecosystem. It’s a legislature’s choice to preference the individual interests of minors over these social considerations, though it’s probably a poor choice. Given that it won’t actually provide minors with a well-functioning digital eraser, the choice appears even more puzzling.

But I have far greater concerns: kids are an apparently inexhaustible source of entertaining Internet fodder. Goats who fall over are pretty good, adults have their charms, but kids: how can you replace the Baby With A Really Deep Laugh, for instance? Or Star Wars Kid? Or all the minors who saw the late night ad for How to Sharpen Pencils last year and tweeted things like “WTF is this???”? This is Classic Internet, a priceless natural resource which should only occasionally be diluted with news and opinions and debate and whathaveyou. It’d be like putting up a Parisian patisserie in front of Old Faithful — you just don’t do that, California.

In short, giving control over the long-term availability of One Direction fan videos to the little people who make it possible would be an outrageous — outrageous! — violation of all we hold near and dear.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.