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Friday 20.07.2018 | Name days: Ramona, Ritma

How to delete regrettable posts from the Internet

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It might seem that the Internet doesn’t lose track of anything that has been published online. The alleged permanence of tweets, blogs, snapshots, and instant messages worries many privacy activists and policymakers such as Viviane Reding, justice commissioner of the European Union and vice president of the European Commission. She has proposed that Europe adopt a “right to be forgotten”—a proposal that is now working its way through the EU legal process and could be law within two years.

Reding’s proposal would grant EU citizens the right to withdraw their consent from online information services after the fact—allowing people to redact embarrassing things from the global information commons, even after the data had been copied to other websites, MIT Technology Review reported.

It’s a controversial proposal: George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen wrote in the Stanford Law Review that such a right could have deeply negative implications for both free speech and journalism and could ultimately fragment the Internet. Rosen pointed out that companies like Google would need to suppress from European search queries information that had been deemed “forgotten” on the continent, even as such information would still be perfectly allowable in the United States.

The proposal might also be unnecessary. Even without a right to be forgotten, there are still many ways that information can be removed from the Web.

Somewhat surprisingly, the easiest information to remove from the Internet may be data stored in Facebook, and to a lesser extent in other social networks. Facebook’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” says that any information a Facebook user uploads to the social network remains that user’s property—posting, liking, and otherwise interacting with Facebook merely gives the service a revocable license to the data. That license ends when the data are deleted.

Facebook was created to make it easy for people to share their personal data—and as a result, people often share information without even realizing it. But Facebook also makes it easy to clean up after yourself. If you put your phone number in your profile, that number might get copied to your friend’s cell phones through Facebook’s application programming interface (API). But if you delete your phone number from your Facebook profile, that same API should go through your friends’ phones and remove your information as well.

It’s not necessarily difficult to have information removed from Twitter, either. Even though the company’s privacy policy warns “what you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly,” Twitter lets users delete their own tweets. You can delete other people’s tweets if you are willing to swear out a complaint that the tweets violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Twitter will also take down tweets that contain harassing or private information, including credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses.

Unfortunately, wiping data away from every cranny of the Internet can be challenging. They don’t show up in Google or Bing, but there are copies hidden away at the Internet Archive, a website that seeks to preserve most of the Internet’s content for posterity. There are procedures for removing data from the Internet Archive, but those procedures generally require the active participation of the current holder of the Web domain.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a system that could index all of the world’s information thoroughly enough to allow someone exercising the “right to be forgotten” to track down and eradicate every regrettable message or photo. More likely, the mechanisms to find that data would cause more privacy violations than they would prevent.

A better solution could be a set of standards for labeling the provenance of information on the Internet. It would be somewhat like the way Facebook requires application developers to keep checking back to see whether personal information is still acceptable to use, writes MIT Technology Review.

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