California introduced a new “Internet Eraser” law this week to protect teens online. Under the new legislation, websites will be required to allow users 18 and under the ability to easily remove posts, videos, and photos. It’s a useful online reputation resource for teens who may be prone to oversharing. But experts warn that it may offer a false sense of security because these days, it’s next to impossible to completely delete a post. California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg says that the new law provides “a groundbreaking protection for our kids who often act impetuously with postings of ill-advised pictures or messages before they think through the consequences.” Steinberg urges that teens “deserve the right to remove this material that could haunt them for years to come.”
In our Online Reputation Management for High School Students guide, we revealed that 82% of colleges are using social media as a recruiting tool, and 25% of college admissions officers shared that they regularly use the Internet to research applicants. That means a single embarrassing photo or questionable post could dash your college dreams. For students who have written posts or shared photos that they’d rather not have judged in the admissions process, this new law that guarantees an easy way to delete those posts offers a big sigh of relief.
The law mirrors what most social media sites already offer. Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and similar services all make it possible for all users to delete posts, tags, and other embarrassing information. But now, all websites with users in California will be required to offer this option if they don’t already. And as most websites don’t exclude California users, it’s safe to assume this means just about every site available to U.S. users will be required to follow the new law.
But can you ever really delete a post? The truth is, probably not.
While the eraser law is a positive step forward in online privacy, teens should know that it’s not a cure-all. Experts warn that the law gives a false sense of security, and we’re inclined to agree. Though posts from the original user will be deleted upon request, the law does not require that websites delete all repostings, including Twitter retweets and Facebook shares. Depending on each website’s policy, the posts could live on through shares and retweets even after the original user has deleted them.
Further, as TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein points out, social media posts are often automatically archived. Services like caching and the Wayback Machine may preserve posts forever before underage users have a chance to delete them. Even the Library of Congress is trying to archive all American tweets to collect the story of America. Deleted posts may be simple to find through outside services.
Even without reposts or archiving, there’s still always the chance that your posted content will be shared even after you’ve deleted it. Once a photo or message is posted, it can be downloaded or copied. Any user can screenshot your posts and save them, and possibly even share them outside of your privacy circle. So while this law helps, it certainly does not guarantee that posts can be deleted from the entire Internet in a single easy step. Once it’s out there, it’s always possible that your posts, photos, and online discussions may be shared without your knowledge or consent.
On its own, this law is just not enough to preserve the online reputation of teens. It is just one of many resources teens can use to ensure that their online persona reflects positively on their personality. Teens should be careful not to create embarrassing posts and photos in the first place, using this law only as a safeguard in case of a lapse in judgement. Create posts that you’ll never want to delete, and the law makes no difference.
California’s new law will go into effect on January 1, 2015.