It’s called “digital permanence,” the idea that once something is uploaded, posted, published or otherwise “put on” the Internet, it will be there forever.
“What goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet.” Videos, blogs, photos, comments, Tweets, website visits, clicks on links, views of YouTube items, Google search terms and results, and, yes, Facebook posts, are all designed to last forever. “Once on the web, always on the web.”
The debate about what should happen to personal information published on the Internet is not a new one. Angela Anas, in an article published in 2013 by the Princeton University Press, discusses the notion of “posting remorse,” and how things posted by you can seem funny and harmless one day, only to come back and haunt you the next.
Case in point: Anthony Weiner and “Weinergate.” Nude photos of then New York Congressman Weiners private parts “leaked” onto the Internet, and the fallout was devastating. “Anthony Weiner was just a regular old politician before his scandal leaked,” writes Ms. Anas. “Now a simple Google search defines him as a sexual deviant with his humiliation dubbed Weinergate. He may bounce back from his shame but the power of the Internet will make it hard to forget what he’s done.”
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, in his 2009 award-winning book “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” notes, “Quite literally, Google knows more about us than we can remember ourselves.”
“Nine out of 10 Americans want the right to force websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about them,” Mayer-Schönberger says. Ms. Anas summarizes his book by saying, “’Delete’ looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well. Potentially humiliating content on Facebook is enshrined in cyberspace for future employers to see. Google remembers everything we’ve searched for and when. The digital realm remembers what is sometimes better forgotten, and this has profound implications for us all.”
“In ‘Delete,’ Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget–the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse.”
The Internet privacy debate is an important one, and has been for the 23 years I’ve been studying Internet and computer safety and security. The exposure Facebook has received in the media lately, about how they sell your private information to third-party data brokers to be used for unscrupulous purposes, is not a “new” story, at all. In fact, it is an old story that guys like me have been crowing about for years.
When Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress in 2018, he had the following exchange with Senator Dick Durbin. Durbin: “Mr. Zuckerberg, would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” Zuckerberg: “Uhh… no.” Durbin: “If you messaged anyone this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?” Zuckerberg: “Senator, no, I would probably choose not to do that.” Durbin: “I think that may be what this is all about. Your right to privacy, the limits of your right to privacy, and how much you’d give away, in modern America, in the name of ‘connecting people around the world.’”
The sad truth is that all the major companies on the Internet, and most of the minor ones, have been spying on Internet users, warehousing their information, developing profiles, and colluding with secretive data brokerages for years. The perpetrators include pretty much anyone you can think of: Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, the list goes on and on.
The uncomfortable truth about it is that the perpetrators of all this spying and data exploitation nonsense are not doing anything illegal. What’s happening may be morally wrong, but not necessarily illegal, because Congress has made no laws regulating the mess we are now in. That’s where you come in. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Seems to me it’s time for us to start squeaking.