Tiffany Jenkins: Internet delete button won’t work

Youngsters today have their every action recorded but everything online. Picture: Getty
Youngsters today have their every action recorded but everything online. Picture: Getty
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THE idea of an internet ‘delete button’ to let under-18s erase their online history may sound appealing. But it would never work, writes Tiffany Jenkins

‘The future wielding unimaginable tools of transparency will have its way with you,” warned the science-fiction writer William Gibson, when he predicted that in the age of the leak and the blog “the future, eventually, will find you out”. Mr Gibson had in mind politicians, diplomats and corporate leaders, but the culture of openness – of revelation, exposure and disclosure, of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest – is just as likely to catch out each and every one of us, rich or poor, young or old, as it is to bring down a powerful head of state or company secrecy. It doesn’t discriminate. Anyone who transgresses online, say they commit an Instagram faux pas, is swiftly brought down by digital vigilantes. When public shaming, there is no attempt to better understand the context of the act or the individual who committed the wrong.

No-one is more likely to do the wrong thing sooner or later than someone who is young, because they are reckless, inexperienced and without foresight. I am one of many people – that’s every single person on the planet over the age of 25 – who is relieved that they grew up before the digital age, before the smart phone recorded every drink downed, every wink made, every mistake laid, on a night out or during the morning after. Because teenagers today are hooked on cables and connections. They spend as much time online as offline – access to wi-fi is a young person’s most treasured human right. And they put it – their life – all out there. They are the “I selfie; therefore I am” generation. Just look at the blog page of a teen, or at their feed. As spoken by a character in Girls – the TV series written by Lena Dunham, the poster girl for letting it all hang out – “There’s no such thing as too much information, this is the information age!”

But one day soon, before long, a prospective employer, beau or reporter will see it too, the bad and exuberant behaviour, the sort of thing that should be hidden from view. Someone who matters will find them out when it matters. The future will track down the past of the young of today, when they lived in the moment and did many foolish, and recorded, things, leaving a trace. Before winning the election for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, it was discovered with a quick search that Mhairi Black had previously tweeted such edifying comments as “maths is shite” and “Smirnoff Ice is the drink of gods – I cannae handle this c*** man!”

It is out of a serious concern for the selfie-generation that a report launched this week calls for the right for young people – those under the age of 18 – to be able to easily edit or delete content they have created online. The iRights campaign aims to achieve five rights: the right to remove; the right to know; the right to safety and support; the right to informed and conscious choices, and the right to digital literacy.

The one that should ring alarm bells is the right to remove content.

The campaigners elaborate: “We believe children and young people should have the unqualified right, on every internet platform or service, to fully remove data and content they have created. This must be easy and straightforward to do.”

They are not calling for an automatic right to delete data written or produced by others, which they recognise would threaten free speech, but that it be considered possible. They are calling for a right for those who are under 18 years of age to be able “to own content they have created, and to have an easy and clearly signposted way to retract, correct and dispute online data that refers to them.” The crossbench peer Beeban Kidron would like to see websites feature “delete buttons” and introduce expiry dates for data acquired from those under 18.

As someone who, like everyone, has a past, I sympathise, not just with the young but with anyone who makes a mistake, an error of judgment, or experiences an unfortunate interpretation of a deed done that forever destroys their reputation. The campaigners are correct when they point out: “Personal experimentation is an essential part of childhood development, yet the internet never forgets and never corrects.” I understand where they are coming from and want they want to achieve – a second chance, a moment of madness that doesn’t come back to hurt you decades later. But they need to get real. A delete button is not the answer, nor is data which self-destructs.

It is unworkable, for a start – the internet never forgets, as the campaigners themselves point out. Anything put online will be copied and reproduced multiple times within seconds. Every post is somewhere, regardless of attempts to magic it away, for ever. Erasing an image or a status update doesn’t mean it’s gone, and it’s wrong to lull people into a false sense of security that it could be. But the main problem with the right to delete is that this is no argument for privacy, for self-restraint, for pushing away the prying eyes of the state, which would be a good idea. Instead, it’s an ill-thought-through idea that seems to suggest that people be able to rewrite history. This would have serious implications and should be resisted. The right to remove has chilling echoes of the “Right to be Forgotten”, the court ruling that allows Europeans to submit applications to Google to remove data from search results that they consider outdated and irrelevant – which is proving censorious.

If something has been published, no matter how young or old the poster, if it is a matter of record, it should not be possible for that data to be removed. Teenagers instead need to appreciate the important difference between keeping things to themselves and putting too much out there. There is such a thing as too much information.