Facebook regret? California law lets kids erase embarrassing posts.

A first-of-its-kind California law requires social media companies such as Facebook to allow teens to erase posts. But the Internet has no true 'permanent delete' button, experts say.

By , Staff writer

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    A Facebook employee walks past a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
    In California, social media companies will now be required to offer minors a way to take down photos and posts.
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California on Monday became the first state to require websites to give minors a way to take down photos and other posts.

The law keeps California at the forefront of social-media legislation. In January, California became one of the first six states to disallow companies from asking job applicants about personal information, like their user names and passwords on Facebook and other social networking sites.

The new legislation is well-meaning, say media watchers, who suggest it could spark much needed dialogue and nudge copycat legislation in other states. But they add that the protection might be misleading because it gives a false sense of security.

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“Lack of control over what we may post online is the Achilles heel of social media, in particular the inability on some sites to remove something that you posted online,” says Paul Levinson, a professor at Fordham University in New York and author of “New New Media.” “The California law is an important step in giving consumers this power.”

“Unfortunately, once a picture or anything is posted, it can be downloaded, which gives it a life even after it is removed from the primary site,” he adds. “But the California law is a step in the right direction.”

State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said in a statement that the measure, SB 568, offers “a groundbreaking protection for our kids who often act impetuously with posting of ill-advised pictures or message before they think through the consequences.”

But Internet fraud expert Daniel Draz tells a personal story of how hard it is to undo anything on the Internet. For 18 years, he tried to keep his address secret to protect his family from people he has sent to prison. But after he moved to Illinois, he found his address on the Internet, probably posted innocently through change-of-address forms at his real-estate company. When he tried to get the address removed, he was sent nine pages of forms with 20 spaces for company names per page.

“I finally gave up, because, even after all that, there was no guarantee these companies would agree to delete my address,” he says.

With regard to removing Facebook photos, he says, “Even if it does get removed from the host site, the number of other commercial sites that have grabbed it in an information-sharing-type arrangement with other sites where they get feeds means that the image is still out there despite what the host is required to do by law.”

Celebrities have had to learn this the hard way, others say.

“There is no such thing as a 'permanent delete' function on the Internet,” says Mario Almonte, partner with Herman & Almonte Public Relations in New York. “As many … public figures have discovered, to their dismay, even pictures or posts that are up for the most fleeting seconds are easily captured by other people and reposted online forever. While [this law] has good intentions, it is unlikely that requiring sites to allow minors to permanently delete their contents when they wish will have much of an impact in any way, since uploading anything to the Internet is, for the most part, an irreversible move.”

Some analysts disagree.

"This can work and it will work,” says Mark Tatge, communication professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “I suspect that unless the federal government acts to enact restrictions relating to social media privacy, we will soon see a patchwork of regulations across the states. This will create all kinds of problems for not just social media sites, but e-commerce sites that track and collect data on people who visit those sites.”

What follows the signing of this bill in California, and how others states follow suit, will be telling, analysts say. But media history is filled with examples of measures that were supposed to do one thing, but ended up doing the opposite, says Renee Hobbs, professor and founding director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island.

Famously, she says, after the Children’s TV Act of 1990 – which mandated full-service TV stations to air at least three hours per week of core educational programming – stations began choosing programs with less educational content, studies showed.

“I’m not sure this will work, but if it starts public debate, that might be good enough,” says Professor Hobbs.

While photos of teens that have been removed from sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine could appear again elsewhere, the very intention of removing it may be important, adds Elizabeth Dowdell, professor in the College of Nursing at Villanova University.

“Yes, posts … can be copied or cut and pasted by others. However, if a post is taken down by the minor, there will be a record or some sort of documentation,” she says. “This record can demonstrate that individual’s good intent in wanting the post/photo to be taken down. For an employer, a high school, a college, scholarship programs, etc., this intent may become a pivotal point in their decisionmaking.”

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