July 8, 2011
Online do-overs: Do we need a law to erase our internet mistakes?
Unless you've been living under a rock the past few years you're probably well aware that any improprieties you make online can come back to haunt you professionally. One suggestive tweet or drunken YouTube video can be all it takes to wreck your reputation, and not just today, but for years to come.
But to some regulators in the European Union, the notion of watching what you say and post online isn't good enough. As Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, wrote this week, the idea of a "right to be forgotten" law governing the internet is gaining support in Europe. Under protection of such a law, people would be able have their online rants, compromising social media posts, and other regrettable digital transgressions permanently removed from the web once remorse sets in.
As Harris so eloquently explains in her article, such a far-reaching law would be difficult to pass in the United States. It's one thing if you're talking about wanting to erase what you've posted on your own social media pages and websites, Harris notes. But what about when you decide you want what you've posted on someone else's website (a hotheaded comment, an unsavory product review) removed? While some social media sites, blogs, and web communities allow you to erase your posts after the fact, others don't. And for a law to mandate that site owners must remove your posts and comments just because you've come down with a case of writer's remorse can open up a big fat can of First Amendment worms.
As Harris writes:
Should users have a "right" to disappear their half of a conversation that takes place in the public comment field to a news article? (If you're inclined to answer "yes," then I'd ask if your answer changes if the user is, for example, a politician who comes to regret the statements he's made or the photos he's tweeted.)
Then there's the matter of such a "right to be forgotten" law extending to information users post online that gets reposted on a third-party site. For example, let's say your horrible boss publishes a book on how to be a world-class manager. You find it laughable that any self-respecting publisher picked up the guy's book, and after a rotten week and a few drinks too many, decide to say as much in an F-bomb-laden Amazon review.
Upon waking the next day, you realize you've made a whopper of a mistake and go to remove your Amazon review. Only the folks at Boing Boing or some other highly trafficked website found your career-killing tirade so amusing that they excerpted and linked back to it. So now your rant's gone viral and is making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and hundreds of other blogs and media sites. To legally mandate that everyone who spread the digital word about your anti-boss rant cease and desist raises all sorts of freedom of expression issues.
As Harris states:
[S]imply giving people the power to remove any unwanted information about them online would violate our fundamental values of freedom of speech and the press. People in this country want and deserve stronger privacy protections, but an all-encompassing 'right to be forgotten,' while alluring, would be unworkable, and unconstitutional to boot.
Harris notes (albeit vaguely) that there also have been some calls in the U.S. for some sort of legally enforceable internet "undo" button. To me, asking for a law to protect us from ourselves is ridiculous. Thinking before you tweet is a much easier solution.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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