The Right to Be Forgotten: Vanishing Online

Earlier this week I wrote about the problems of writing samples vanishing from the internet as sites are taken down. Today I wanted to think about the reverse: things staying “stuck” online, even when they’re out of date, wrong, or no longer a good representation of who you are.

This video sums it up really well:

What happens when you want something to go away, off the internet?

I still feel badly for early-00s object-of-mockery “Star Wars kid,” who filmed himself imagining he was a Jedi (because who doesn’t?!) and whose friends took the video and put it online without his permission, catapulting him to unwanted fame and relentless mockery. While most of the world was laughing at his antics, that was one of the first really incredible cases of cyberbullying. But there was no recourse, no way to pull the plug.

I mean, at least Rebecca Black only had herself (and her parents) to blame for that atrocity of the song. And she’s laughing all the way to the bank… she could have pulled the video early on if she’d wanted to. But she got fame, like she wanted (kinda).

There’s a special subset of women who are also up against the “permanence” of the Internet: they’ve had their faces and/or bodies stolen, via images pulled off their computers or manipulated, in what is now known as “revenge porn.” (In some particularly sickening cases, these women are intentionally harassed: links sent to family, friends, and their places of work. Their home addresses advertised online, accompanied by threats.) Though the FBI has started to make moves against the perpetrators, there’s still limited recourse, and existing laws don’t fully protect the individuals in question. It’s an uphill battle.

But what about totally legal things? Did you know that if you have a mugshot taken, it may be taken and put online–even if you aren’t ever charged with a crime? The mugshots are public record, so it’s technically entirely legal for this to happen. The unscrupulous photo-advertisers then ask for money to have the images taken down.

I think it’s really important that we think about our “digital footprints,” both how to preserve the parts we want (such as writing samples) and how to erase the parts that may not deserve to be shared into infinity. We don’t have a solution yet, but I hope we do, someday.

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