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Edit, undo online history

Read time 4min 00sec

I have often mused that it would be great if real life came with an "undo" button. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, the morning after a big night out, we could hit some kind of "ctrl+Z" combination and it would never have happened? Instead, we get the memories immortalised on social media. For all eternity, Google will be able to point friends and strangers alike in the direction of that precise moment when tequila overpowered common sense.

I had a Livejournal throughout my late teens. At the time I posted the content, I thought it was well-reasoned and mature, or at least amusing. When I read it again, years later, it was so horrifying that I deleted it all. The idea of anyone I associate with now stumbling across that content in some archived form, and judging me based on it, is terrifying. This is something previous generations never had to worry about, when our innermost teenage turmoil was locked away in a physical diary that could be hidden or, you known, burnt.

In the digital age, it is possible to "burn" original copies of things like Livejournals, Twitter posts, forum comments and Facebook photos, but the truth is, once something is posted online, we have little control over it. It can be archived, re-tweeted, blogged and shared right out of our networks.

Concerning consequences

Increasingly, companies are becoming interested in examining social media data when recruiting. Hiring the wrong employee is costly, and since so much data on people is now freely available online, it makes sense for them to make use of it. As these companies become better at processing unstructured data, and - truth be told - at using Google, the possibility of them digging up our most embarrassing moments becomes very real.

It's bad enough if you're an adult and the company you're interviewing with stumbles upon the picture of you doing something crazy at your best friend's braai last week, but if you're not even out of school yet, you could face judgment later for actions you took before you knew better. People grow and change over time; Internet records do not.

This is why a new law passed last week in California is such big news. According to the San Francisco publication, SFGate: "Legislation signed by Gov Jerry Brown on Monday will require Web companies, starting in 2015, to remove online activity - whether it be scandalous or simply embarrassing - should a California minor request it."

This means teens actually do have an "undo" button for the Internet. In California, at least. The so-called "eraser law" could be the first of many such laws to protect minors globally. I think that's wonderful. But it begs the question: is it only minors who should have the right to rub out their pasts from the Net?

Look who's stalking

The Internet is building a profile of you right now. Machine learning and linguistic analysis tools have given the Internet ears, the ability to get us all neatly categorised and labelled, and ready to be advertised to. I mentioned art in a Google message once. Now Google will forever sell me art supplies. Heaven help me if I ever mention babies. We've all heard the story of how Target figured out a girl was pregnant before her father knew through its analysis tools.

I'll admit... targeted advertising is kind of great, in a way. I much prefer being sold things I'm actually interested in. But I also think it's not unreasonable to ask for some control over that too.

Having the power to erase irrelevant data is about more than just deleting incriminating Facebook pics and maintaining our right to privacy; it's also about ensuring the Internet - and those using it to find out information about us - has an accurate idea of who we are.

I think there's a compelling argument for a broader eraser law that gives us all power over our own digital footprints. I have absolutely no illusions about the amount of data about me that is out there. I also have zero confidence that it's all accurate. Even if it was right about who I was when it first started listening, can it possibly know who I am now?

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