July 21, 2010

Our Responsibilities on the Web That Never Forgets

Greetings. The New York Times has published an important article on the subject of the Net's long memory, and the impacts on reputations and other aspects of people's lives when previously posted materials exist essentially forever online.

Regular readers know (all too well!) my frequent comment that we must always assume that anything publicly posted on the Net may be permanent, despite attempts to expunge or ignore any particular data later on.

The Times article makes a number of good points, but also in my opinion downplays some key realities and confuses some important aspects of the issues in some cases.

The concept of passing laws to prevent employers from using publicly posted information (e.g. Facebook pages) in their employment decisions seems effectively meaningless. One way or another, those searches will be done and those pages seen, and if necessary some other reason will be cited for the decline of particular applicants.

The idea of self-destructing data implicitly assumes that all public copies of the public data in question are also deleted, and that all involved entities (in various countries) would even respond to data deletion requests or demands. While deleting data from the most widely seen repositories might reduce its impact for a time, the odds are that it could still be found on other servers and would eventually find its way back into primary search engines again at some point as Net site crawling proceeds.

The article seems to confuse the concept of deleting public data with (their example) Google's anonymizing of log data after a specified period of time. The former is explicitly public data, the latter explicitly private without copies in public view. The two cases are entirely dissimilar. That log data can be anonymized says nothing about the ability to effectively delete publicly available data.

It is disturbing that people are paying significant -- sometimes very large -- sums of money to third parties in an attempt to "game" Google search results to push "negative" links toward the back of results listings. I do continue to feel that some mechanism to help in situations of egregiously false information would be useful. Several years ago I discussed this -- in terms of concepts to think about, not a specific proposal -- in Extending Google Blacklists for Dispute Resolutions.

Decades ago, when the Internet (then ARPANET) was new, I started participating in and helping to develop the then novel concept of public discussion mailing lists, many of which were archived in one form or another even way back then, and the discussions from which in many cases remain online today. I still receive new comments responding to what I wrote on those lists so long ago that new generations of Internet users have discovered.

Yet I remember being conscious even at the time of the likely "permanence" of what I was writing. I distinctly recall saying to a colleague who inquired about this "new-fangled" mailing list stuff that it was useful and fun, but that he'd better assume that anything he sent to those lists might be around forever. He sort of chuckled at my suggestion.

And therein may be a key to these dilemmas. On one hand, individuals need to understand -- from a very young age indeed -- that (just like how you don't want to stick your hand into an open flame) what you post publicly (or even just to your "friends") may well be permanent, and that discretion is indeed the better part of valor in some situations on the Net.

This doesn't directly help in those cases where someone else posts damaging false information -- some sort of dispute resolution mechanisms as mentioned above may ultimately have some role to play in that respect.

But fundamentally, nobody puts a gun to your head and forces you to post personal goodies to Facebook or anywhere else. Peer pressure has always existed and has ruined many lives over time, but as adults the ultimate responsibility has to be our own, not just for ourselves but also for our children who are too young to understand the potentially lifetime ramifications of what they do and say online.


Posted by Lauren at July 21, 2010 09:04 AM | Permalink
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