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Coming to Grips with an Internet that Never Forgets

Michael Geist

My weekly technology law column discusses the implications of an Internet that never forgets. I note that the most significant Internet effect during the current election campaign in Canada has not been any particular online video, website or Facebook group. Instead, it has been the resignation of eight Canadian candidates based on embarrassing or controversial information unearthed online. Many observers have blamed the revelations on inadequate vetting processes, yet the reality is that these incidents shine the spotlight on an important but rarely discussed aspect of the Internet. Old blog postings, chat room discussions, or difficult-to-explain videos are captured by search engine databases and lie dormant until an intrepid searcher comes across it. In other words, the Internet never forgets.

The effect of a technology that never forgets marks a dramatic change in the way that we deal with the past. Most people have older embarrassing stories or incidents that they would prefer to forget. Before the emergence of the Internet and cheap data storage, they had little reason to fear that these might come to light. Today's digital generation will have a much different relationship with their past. In an always-on environment, videos, photographs, blog postings, and discussion room comments live forever online. There are certainly great advantages to creating large, personal archives that are immediately accessible with sophisticated search technologies. However, as the now former election candidates recently learned, there is also great potential for negative consequences.

Candidates for public office may be fair game given the right of voters to fully vet their elected representatives. But the Internet that never forgets does not stop with politicians. The born digital generation enthusiastically posts everything from party photos to their thoughts on the issues of the day. This content has a "Hotel California" quality to it — you can post it anytime you like, but it never leaves. The postings may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but there is a concern that future employers or academic admissions officers will adopt a different perspective.

Search engines such as Google are frequently the first place people turn to when they want to learn more about a potential applicant or interviewee. More sophisticated tools for uncovering blog postings or Facebook entries are now readily available, providing the potential to develop detailed online profiles that may or may not reflect the real person.

Given that people will likely post more rather than less in the coming years, there is a need to reconsider how this online story is interpreted. The conventional approach might be to take everything at face value, viewing the embarrassing content as reflecting a character fault in the person (for that reason, new services that seek to scrub online postings have begun to emerge).

Companies, schools, and other organizations should resist the temptation to judge based on a years-old blog posting or video, however. If the cameras are always on, they are bound to catch something that people would prefer be kept private. Similarly, if social interaction means posting content online, some regrettable comments are sure to follow. The Internet may never forget, but sometimes we should be willing to.

By Michael Geist, Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law
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Share your comments

What you post will haunt you Stephen Douglas  –  Oct 25, 2008 3:43 AM PST

I agree with this story, but if you don't have a strong constitution to be able to do the following, then you should never post at all:

1) At the time, I believed this to be true
2) I was pissed off at this person, so give me a break
3) Who cares? I have an opinion, and I am not a racist, misogynist, or child molester
4) I like to be involved and try to help form public opinion, and sometimes I'm wrong. If I find out my past posts were wrong, I'll be glad to tell you now that they were, and discuss my new opinions
5) Anyone who hasn't posted their comments online doesn't deserve a spot in government because it shows they aren't "connected" like the rest of us. If those who haven't posted any of their opinions online are running for office, then let them pour the box of their personal letters on the table for us to read.
6) Sorry, don't have the time to answer you. Too busy trying to learn all the new networking technology. My opponent doesn't know how to download a picture from his email and open it. Who would you rather have running your govt?

If you're an ass, and have shared opinions online that have infringed upon citizens within your scope, then too bad for you. However, an argument about a legit position you took and the ability to change your mind isn't any big deal. You can turn it around.

Personally, I think my blog http://www.successclick.com has stated clearly that some domain companies are ripoffs, or need some clear changes. I don't care if they don't hire me later.

Anyway, nice article and it carries a lot of truth, even beyond my response.

peace

Stephen Douglas
Successful Domain Management™
Blog: http://www.Successclick.com
http://www.DomainRelevance.com
"Own Your Competition™"

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