California's Internet Eraser Law: Nice Idea, but It Won't Work

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Sept. 25 2013 3:07 PM

California's Internet Eraser Law: Nice Idea, but It Won't Work

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Photo by Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday the governor of California signed a bill stipulating that social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr allow kids under 18 to permanently erase their posts. Starting in 2015, these platforms must equip California's teenage users with the ability to delete video, text, and photo content forever—unless that content was originally uploaded by a third party or is subpoenaed. The law aims to protect a group of people prone to bad decisions from self-sabotage via drunken selfie, ignorant rant, overuse of #YOLO, and other Internet fouls we oldsters can only imagine (until we Google the names on the resumes). As state Sen. Darrell Steinberg told the Los Angeles Times, the new law offers "groundbreaking protection for our kids who often act impetuously with postings of ill-advised pictures or messages before they think through the consequences."

The measure seems well-intentioned and compassionate—who hasn’t been young, dumb, and online—but have the California lawmakers followed their own advice and thought through the consequences? As Gregory Ferenstein of TechCrunch observes, almost every service out there already provides a delete button. At least theoretically, teens (and adults) have long enjoyed the option to Windex away their social media indiscretions. The problem, Ferenstein continues, is that few posts exist in isolation. To have real bite, the measure would need to address content that other users have interacted with through likes, comments, and retweets. (Does it? The wording is unclear.) And now that Facebook likes are constitutionally protected speech, removing them in the process of expunging a regrettable post may provoke the First Amendment furies. SB-568 seems poised to fail as either too limited in scope or too censorial.

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Also: “More and more of the social media world is automatically archived,” Ferenstein writes, as Internet storehouses “create copies of nearly every piece of information on the web.” Do services like Facebook or Twitter even have the reach to meddle in these independently owned digital libraries? How would a teen’s request to remove a post be enforced?

From here, the “eraser” law looks undercooked and unworkable. But let’s say it jumped through the various constitutional/operational hoops and actually succeeded in mopping up minors’ social media mistakes. Would that be a good thing? Yes, growing up is synonymous with becoming less stupid—and kids deserve the chance to shed their cauls of stupidity in private, without a world of future professors, employers, and dates looking on. But do we really want to promote a lack of accountability on the Web? Would an all-purpose undo button embolden cyberbullies? Would teens learn to be less discriminating about what they posted online—only to wake up on their 18th birthdays with delusions of Internet infallibility?

To this day, the embarrassing things I may post to Facebook or Twitter worry me far less than the embarrassing but true things my friends may post to Facebook or Twitter about me. Of course, the bill is silent (probably rightfully so) on this problem. As the Scottish thane says, I have done the deed. I wish California senators could protect me—and kids, and you, reader!—from the sad truth that actions have consequences. They can’t. Sometimes you think you want a delete button but what you really want is a time machine.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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