Remember those photographs you took doing something you’d rather forget with someone you can’t remember in a location you can’t recall? You discarded the originals, of course. And what about that exchange of e-mails that got out of hand and which you now deeply regret. You deleted them of course, so it’s all in the past.

Or is it?

If you posted the pictures to a social network like Facebook or e-mailed from an address like Gmail or Hotmail, then all your photographs are still in cyberspace, eternally circulating, awaiting recall at an embarrassingly inappropriate moment. And those e-mails? Well, don’t forget that Gmail and Hotmail have the right to read anything and everything you post on their services, keep it forever and use it as they see fit to ‘provide their service’. As things stand at the moment, you have no right to be forgotten and no right to have your foolish indiscretions forgotten either – even if you delete your accounts. If anyone shared your stuff, reposted or quoted it in an email then it remains out there forever.

In his groundbreaking paper, Digital Footprints: social networks and the right to delete, Alex Mather explores how this all came about and proposes that the law should be changed to allow ‘the right to delete’ our entire digital footprint and to be forgotten. There are, of course, those who disagree with Mather’s position, claiming that the public has a right to know, especially if you are public figure, but they singularly fail to justify why the public has a right to know about the average person for ever. These are the same people who claim a ‘public interest’ defense for journalistic intrusion and fail to differentiate between “that which is of public interest and that which is merely interesting to the public“. I find it particularly enlightening that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook uses the ‘public interest’ defense and almost always inappropriately.

Of course, the social networks could very easily allow those who wish to delete all digital content that is linked to their profiles – even if shared by third parties – but they have a solid business reason for resisting this move. The social networks, the free web based email, and the search engines (such as Google) are not provided free as a social utility, or because the companies are altruistic, but because they can collect huge amounts of data about their users and when this data is parsed, sorted, codified and categorised, it forms a huge database of demographically selectable information that the company can sell to advertisors in the form of highly targeted advertising space (the life blood of the advertising industry) – this is what makes Facebook worth the estimated $80 billion that stock market analysts are predicting.

Someone once remarked along the lines that as “this is the digital age, you have no privacy anyway”  and research suggests that the young digital natives who have grown up with the worldwide web (i.e born after the late 1980s) are relatively unconcerned about providing personal data to anonymous third parties and are only concerned about what those parties will do with it. Well, now they know: it is stored forever to be used to target them with advertising and to bring huge damage to their reputations when they least expect it.

Alex Mather, a former editor-in-chief of the Social Contract, the University of Western Ontario’s academic journal of political science, is the author of Lights, Camera, Communication: The Effects of Mass Media on Election Campaigns (2009) and has worked in finance in the entertainment industry. He received his Masters degree from the London School of Economics where his dissertation was on the impact of illegal file-sharing on music and film industry revenues. He now lives in Toronto, Canada.

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