Should We Be Able to Erase Our Online Pasts? Benedikt and Bosch Weigh In.

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May 20 2014 11:54 AM
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“When You Do Something, It Will Follow You”

Is the ability to erase your online past a good thing? Slate editors weigh in. 

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Illustration by Charlie Powell

Recently, Eric Posner wrote for Slate arguing that the European court was correct in giving people the right to erase their online pasts. He argued that the “right to be forgotten” is exactly what the Internet needs. In this Slate Plus conversation, senior editor Allison Benedikt and Future Tense editor Torie Bosch weigh in on whether we should be able to erase our online pasts, or whether it should trail us forever.

Allison Benedikt: My position on this issue is that I would like to be able to erase my embarrassing past but see everyone else’s. Torie, I just Googled you and, in the first page of results, came across the headline “Is Torie Bosch Really An Idiot?” Would you like that erased? Are you really an idiot?

Torie Bosch: I would love to erase that post and certain other elements of my digital footprint. (Thank god you have to dig deep into the Wayback Machine to find my Backstreet Boys fan fiction from the late ’90s. I believe that the fact that I have written Backstreet Boys fan fiction answers your second question.)

But I'd like to erase a lot of things from my past that are analog. The divide between our IRL and Internet lives has blurred so much—why should we be able to manipulate the digital world if we can’t alter the past?

Benedikt: Eric Posner’s argument is that IRL (which, by the way, the Internet is, but I'll save that for another chat) there are some safeguards set up so that our past transgressions don't ruin us forever: Your credit can improve over time, criminal records can be wiped for minor crimes, medical records are supposed to be private.

I'm not against second chances (within reason), but it seems naive to say that the Internet should conform to the way things used to be. We all need to understand the reality of the world, which is that when you do something stupid or bad or noteworthy, it will follow you. I know this. I know that there are horrible things written about me on the Internet.

So if, say, I am one day in a position to hire someone and they too have horrible things written about them on the Internet, I bet I wouldn't ding them for it as a rule. In 2014, if you don’t have some weird stuff out there online, that makes you more suspicious to me, actually.

Bosch: Totally agree with you on your IRL point—and that's why I think that it seems a little arbitrary to create this mechanism to delete a search result. To a certain extent, the problem of being haunted by your digital past is a temporary one, so long as your past escapades are relatively mundane. We will reach a point at which every presidential candidate has megabytes of drunken college photos online (unless in the future the college campus is replaced by some dry, online-only experience).

Which is not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons why we should create new privacy protections. A person's medical records shouldn’t be widely accessible online, but that's different altogether. I think Jonathan Zittrain gets it right when he says in the New York Times that the European Court of Justice ruling “is both too broad and curiously narrow.” The content's still there, the problem’s still there.

Benedikt: There have always been and should forever be consequences to our actions. What else keeps us in line? But also: That's a good point about our future presidential candidates—and, really, future all of us. Right now we fret over our children’s Internet footprints—how their dumb tweets today will ruin their tomorrows. But this is a totally overblown concern, because it assumes old farts like David Plotz will forever be making the hiring decisions. But David Plotz 2.0 will probably not bat an eye at some job applicants' somewhat questionable Instagram past, right? We all just keep evolving, or devolving, together.

Another danger advocates for the ruling don't address: In the words of our colleague Josh Keating, the right to be forgotten could “allow politicians and businesses to whitewash their records, removing embarrassing information from the peering eyes of journalists, NGOs, and ordinary citizens.” And that's no good, right Torie?

Bosch: No good at all! I was chatting about this earlier today with Christine Rosen, a Future Tense fellow at New America and a senior editor at the New Atlantis. She made the good point that Snapchat’s popularity—notwithstanding the FTC decision about how Snapchat doesn't exactly work as well as people think it does—shows that even those let-it-all-hang-out kids want to keep some things private.

Your kids aren’t old enough for the “Internet will never forget” talk, right? Maybe by the time they are, the right-to-be-forgotten discussion will have moved in a more productive direction. But I think this is a false start.

Benedikt: My kids are not old enough yet, but still I threaten them all the time: Either be perfect or we're moving to Europe!

Bosch: OK, Allison Benedikt. You now know all about my shameful digital past. What would you erase from your Internet footprint if you could?

Benedikt: If you Google me, you will learn that I am a dog-hating, self-loathing Jew who doesn't care about my children’s education and is married to an abusive husband. That’s all fine. But I would really like to erase my wedding announcement, for I was once the kind of person who wanted that sucker published in the pages of the New York Times.

I know. I wouldn't hire me either.

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