Technology

Is California's social media 'eraser' law a losing battle?

Law raises new questions as it aims to save young people from themselves by allowing online histories to be deleted

The law was passed as a measure to protect job-seeking recent graduates from being hampered by their social media shenanigans.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

California is suiting up and battling the black hole of Internet shame.

A few weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the “eraser” bill, pressuring Facebook, Twitter and other social media heavyweights to make it easier for users to delete whole swaths of their potentially embarrassing social media histories.

Authored by State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the law has a huge caveat: It applies to you only if you are a child or a very young adult. It was passed under the guise of a job law to protect recent high school or college graduates from being hampered by previous social media shenanigans.

Internet advocates say the law raises more questions than answers, particularly: “Why just target kids?” The young may be naive, but it seems older adults would be struggling more with understanding the impact of technology.

“It’s directed towards teenagers, which in itself is kind of vague,” says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “If you’re going to have privacy rules, you might as well protect everyone.”

The protect-our-kids designation not only likely helped get the law passed, but it might also help lawmakers actually focus their efforts, too.

Last year, President Barack Obama developed a sweeping Internet Bill of Rights that says companies can keep only “reasonable” personal information and citizens can decide when they want information released or deleted. The idealistic list morphed into the much more focused Do Not Track law, which in itself has had challenges in being enforced.

Shane Block, a California high school student, isn’t holding his breath for the state to protect him from himself.

“I don’t think any of these networks or my friends will take this (law) seriously,” he said. “I (just) keep my social networking profiles private.”

Piecemeal approach?

His experience matches the results of a groundbreaking 2013 Pew Internet study that found more than half of all teen Facebook users keep their profiles private.

More significantly, California’s social media protection law passed just as Block and other youth are flocking away from Facebook altogether and onto private, closed networks. The same Pew Internet study found that most teens had “waning enthusiasm for Facebook,” while the new personal, ephemeral photo sharing service SnapChat serves 350 million photos per day. (Facebook noticed the sea change, too, reportedly offering $1 billion for SnapChat before trying, and failing, to beat it with its SnapChat clone, Facebook Poke.)

Facebook is actually taking an approach opposite to that of smaller, intimate networks. Last week the largest social network, perhaps in a last-ditch effort for young user retention, announced that 13- to 17-year-old users would now be able to do completely public posts. Previously, kids could share status updates, pictures and other content only with their friends or friends of friends. The Facebook change occurred weeks after the California law passed, making the law either sharply prescient or haphazardly appropriate.

Critics also worry that the law has language that belies the very viral nature of online media.

“What many will find, however, is that there are limits to this piecemeal approach,” said Joy Spencer, project director of the digital food marketing and youth initiative at the Center for Digital Democracy. “As with Facebook, teens will not be able to ‘erase’ content that has been copied and posted by another user.”

Picture a college student sharing an embarrassing late-night photo with his 200 Twitter followers. He deletes it in the morning, but it’s too late: Two of his followers shared, or retweeted, the photo to their respective 300 and 500 followers, and those followers in turn can pass it on. The law’s language doesn’t require social networks to hunt down those shares, retweets, Likes, and Google-pluses. That would not only be an unreasonable, resource-intensive request, but it would be virtually impossible to accomplish if an item is shared across multiple social networks — like a tweeted photo getting copied onto Instagram and shared on Google Plus. It turns out the caveat seems to neutralize the main purpose of the law.

Uncharted territory

Despite the law’s issues, advocates believe teens and young adults need to be protected. But rather than focusing on job eligibility, as the new law does, they think young people need to be protected from the social networks themselves, especially in light of Facebook’s sudden teen privacy shift.

“Up until these recent privacy changes, teen data on Facebook was largely protected from this exploitation,” said Spencer. “While Facebook presents these changes as a recognition that adolescents should participate in the wider cultural debate, its real goal is to provide an avenue to expose their data more effectively to advertisers … This will ultimately prove to be damaging to teen privacy rights and subject them to more target marketing.”

The California law and the Facebook privacy criticism aren’t the only recent knocks against teens using social media. This week the journal Pediatrics recommended that children spend no more than two hours on social media daily. The journal found that American kids ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven hours a day using some type of modern media, including TV, video games and the Internet. The recent smartphone explosion certainly influenced this number and limits the amount of control that parents have over children’s social media exposure.

Data-based recommendations are a rarity because there hasn’t been enough time to accurately study the social and emotional effects of social media. Critics give California credit for at least attempting to regulate the Internet Wild West.

“California is looking to D.C. and realizing that it isn’t getting anything done,” said Brookman. “Remember when employers wanted to access employees’ social networks? It pushed the first data breach notification law and pressured D.C. to get something done … (The law isn’t perfect,) but it is encouraging to see them try to get things done.”

Damon Brown is the author of “Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed With Documenting Our Lives Online.”

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