Analysis

Today's kids will need right to remove online posts about them

Many of today's teens have had their whole lives documented in their parents' social media posts, including some that might be embarrassing. A new report looks at what options they should have to edit their online reputation.

Once they're adults, they should be able to edit their online reputation, privacy watchdog says

Former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham posted this photo of her son Brooklyn on Instagram for his birthday. (Instagram)

If you were born in 2003, that would mean you are now at least 14 years old.

It would also mean that Facebook, born Feb. 4, 2004, has been in existence almost your entire life.

And that means, chances are, there are a whole lot of photos of you online.

In fact, it's likely that your whole life has been documented in a series of status updates: your first tooth, your first birthday, your first day of kindergarten, your first camping trip.

But what now? You're thinking about college, developing crushes, and looking for a summer job… and some of those photos are starting to feel pretty embarrassing. But what can you do?

That's a central issue in a new draft report on protecting your online reputation, from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, which was released on Friday.

According to the commissioner, the intent of this preliminary paper is "to start a discussion about potential ways to address issues associated with the permanency of personal information online and the effect on reputation."

The report includes measures and suggestions based on consultations with various stakeholders and the Canadian public, in the hopes of, as they say, "helping to create an environment where individuals may use the internet to explore their interests and develop as persons without fear that their digital trace will lead to unfair treatment."

Right to be forgotten

On the legal blog All About Information, author Dan Michaluk writes that although the position is at the draft stage, it "is nonetheless of critical significance to Canadians' use of the internet — creating a broader variant of the so-called European "right to be forgotten." That is, people should have the agency to decide what information is, and isn't archived about them online.

And while that's true of all individuals, it is especially so with children and teens, whose lives may have been extensively documented online by others, before they reach the age of consent.

World Breastfeeding Week 2014 is from Aug. 1 to Aug 7. Alanis Morissette marked the occasion by reposting this picture on her Instagram account with the caption 'family on tour ;) europe 2012.' (Instagram/Alanis Morissette)

According to the commissioner's report, young people are particularly vulnerable when it comes to the challenges associated with online reputation management; Between social pressures and requirements placed on them by schools, they often have little choice but to engage online.

Additionally, they are "in a time of experimentation, in which boundaries are being tested." Not to mention the fact that for a generation of parents who were in college when social media and smartphones broke onto the market, sharing photos or status updates about their kids has become as second nature as posting about themselves.

As such, the report says, it is "critical that youth be provided with a means of reinventing themselves as they mature and enter adulthood — a fact recognized by the existence of "clean slate" and other protective mechanisms in Canada and elsewhere."

Essentially, the suggestion is that once kids become adults, they should have the agency to remove content from online that they are uncomfortable with; young people should have "as close to an absolute right as possible" to remove information that they've posted and that others have posted about them.

While in some cases removing information from online might be as simple as deleting a photo from Facebook, "ensuring that all copies of content has been removed" can be especially challenging, says Matthew Johnson, the director of education for Media Smarts, a Canadian non-profit organization that focuses on media literacy programs.

"Because of how easy it is to make and distribute copies of online material, it's always going to be a challenge to remove anything completely."

Whitewashing history?

Most privacy experts agree that the position of the draft is a step in the right direction in terms of giving young people autonomy over their personal information, saying that young people should have the freedom to experiment and explore different aspects of their personalities in their youth without it being held against them once they are adults.

Like many parents, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg posts pictures of his children online. (Facebook)

But there is also a concern that giving individuals carte blanche to "clean up" their digital footprint could lead to essentially "whitewashing" history. Some point out that when it comes to harmful posts, youth is no defence for bad behaviour.

In reference to a series of obscene Facebook posts that resulted in several students having their offers of admission to Harvard University rescinded, Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, said: "To not hold students to some level of accountability or to say it's no big deal is wrongful and misses an educational opportunity."

That's where education comes in.

In addition to detailing suggestions about the digital rights of young people who have grown up online, the draft also focuses on the need for media literacy.

The report emphasizes that educational messaging should include "emphasis on the importance of thinking about the potential impacts of one's actions on all relevant parties."

In addition, the commissioner advises that another focus of media literacy efforts should involve educating individuals on currently available mechanisms to control reputation, such as takedown mechanisms, privacy settings, and emerging privacy enhancing technologies.

As John Wunderlich, a Toronto based information privacy and security expert, puts it:

"As a citizen, you have an obligation to know what your responsibilities are, but you also should know what your rights are."

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in the RTA School of Media and director of the Transmedia Zone at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.

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