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Mobile applica-
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How to make the Internet forget



Milon Gupta

It is common wisdom that the Internet never forgets. This feature of the Net has become an issue for data privacy. With every photo or profile text uploaded to a social networking site, the issue is growing more serious. Now France wants to teach the Internet how to forget.

According to an article published on BBC News in January 2010, France is considering a law which would give Internet users the option to have old data about themselves deleted. The idea is to force Internet service providers and mobile operators to dispose of e-mails and text messages after an agreed length of time or on the request of the individual concerned. 

Although the paternal attitude and the effectiveness of such a law would be debatable, there is no doubt that the French considerations have hit a fundamental problem. Since the advent of Web 2.0 and social networking, the relentless memory of the Internet has severely undermined the privacy of users, who, right now, have no way to remove private information from the Internet, which has accidentally or by their own carelessness become public. 

Career-terminating effects 

There is a growing number of cases, in which private pictures uploaded to social networking sites, like Facebook or MySpace, have had career-terminating effects. Take, for example, the case of a prospective teacher in the US who was refused to get her her teaching certificate despite the fact that she had passed the exams and completed her credits. The reason: she had put a photo on her MySpace page that showed her wearing a pirate hat and holding a plastic cup in her hand that was subtitled "Drunken Pirate." The dean at her university, who had become aware of the photo, took it as evidence for declaring her not suitable for the teaching profession. The reason given was that the photo would entice her students to drink alcohol. Her attempts to remove the photo from the Web failed. 

However, it doesn’t always take a compromising picture to terminate your career. A written comment can have the same effect. Like in the case of a young woman from the United Kingdom. She posted on Facebook that she found her job boring. Her employer saw the comment and fired her. 

Another great career-terminating tool can be Twitter. A lucky job applicant in the U.S. tweeted the following: “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty pay check against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.” The tweet caught the attention of someone at Cisco, who responded: “Who is the hiring manager? I'm sure they would love to know that you will hate the work. We here at Cisco are versed in the web. ”´The job application quickly made his Twitter account private, but too late – Twitter search retained the record. 

Unwanted popularity 

In these cases it could be argued that those affected are responsible for the effects of their carelessness. The question is rather how long people should suffer from a moment of carelessness through public exposure via the Internet. 

Furthermore, there are also cases, when the public exposure was not caused by the carelessness of the affected person, but through violation of the person’s privacy rights by a third party. Like in the case of the young man who applied for a job at a U.S. investment firm by sending a video with his résumé called “Impossible Is Nothing”. The video showed the man engaging in a variety of physical feats, from bench pressing and doing a ski jump to breaking bricks with a karate chop, while he bragged about his accomplishments. Someone at the investment firm e-mailed the video to other firms, and it was finally posted on YouTube, where it became an instant hit. His video has become so famous that it even got a Wikipedia entry – not exactly what you would like to happen with your confidential application documents. 

Expiry dates for digital information 

Even if we do not focus on such extreme cases, the fact that nothing is forgotten on the Internet can have generally detrimental effects on the psyche of users. Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, author of “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”, stresses the importance of forgetting. He said: “Things that become less important over time fade in our minds and we forget.” Thus, he also wants to make the Internet forget according to the biological function of human brains by adding an expiry data for digital information. “What I want to do is to make remembering just a tiny little bit more costly and forgetting just a little cheaper. Expiry dates help us do that,” Mr Mayer-Schonberger.

Content management systems, like Typo3, already allow to add an expiry date to web pages, but it will take some time, before expiry dates will be commonplace also for information hosted on social media sites.

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