Make It Didn’t Happen

So California has a new law to protect children and teenagers. Yay?

The law has two main threads: it allows minors to request the removal of any content they’ve posted and requires Web companies to comply with the request, and it forbids companies that have mobile apps to market products that are illegal for minors to minors.

Proponents are hailing the law as a victory for privacy and the Safety of Our Children. It’s a chance to undo mistakes and give oneself a fresh start. The problem is that the law doesn’t really do much. Consider:

  • The law only applies to content directly posted by the minor. If someone else posts an embarrassing picture or message about a minor, the law doesn’t apply. To get the content taken down, the minor would have to work through the company’s existing policies and procedures. Presumably if most company’s practices were adequate, there wouldn’t have been a need for this law.
  • Similarly, the law does not cover material copied from a minor’s post. If a teen were to post a potentially-embarrassing photo to Facebook, for example, he could require that Facebook take it down, but could not do anything about copies residing in various archives (our old friend the Internet Archive, for example), search engine caches (Google Image Search, anyone?), or even the copy his buddy posts to his own Facebook page. Consider, too, a Twitter post: the minor could require Twitter to take down a specific tweet, but would not be able to require the take down of any retweets.
  • Note the use of the phrase “take it down”. Companies are not required to actually delete content, only remove it from public view. Depending on the company’s actual setup, the content might remain on the servers, vulnerable to deep linking and hacking.
  • Your 18th birthday is on Monday, so you’re partying all weekend? Better send the removal request for all those Twitter updates about where you got your fake ID, which bars you’re hitting, and just how blasted you are before midnight. The law doesn’t apply once you turn 18, so Twitter has no obligation to honor your request come Monday.

Bottom line: The law is intended to protect teenagers from the consequences of their bad judgment. What it’s actually doing is encouraging irresponsible posting and leading minors to develop bad habits. By allowing them unlimited “take backs”, it encourages a “post first, think second” mentality. Post something embarrassing or illegal? No problem! Send a take-down request and it’s gone. Until you’re 18 and head off to college. Suddenly you have to think before posting. In a new environment, with greatly-reduced potential for adult supervision. Not such an easy habit to break, is it? Good luck!

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