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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

New State Law Lets California Teens Erase Digital Footprints More Easily

Signe Okkels Larsen |
December 28, 2014 | 1:06 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

(Signe Okkels Larsen / Neon Tommy)
(Signe Okkels Larsen / Neon Tommy)

"If you wouldn't want it to be displayed on a billboard for everyone to see, you shouldn't post it online." That's what Annette Harrington tells her 17-year-old son, Joshua.

“I try to make sure he understands that what he puts there is going to be seen later,” said Harrington, a mother of three in Coalinga, Calif.

A new law in California addresses this concern. Beginning in January 2015, the new statute, known as the “Eraser Button Law,” will give all minors under the age of 18 the right to have their online content and information deleted by websites, apps and other online services.

With the expansion of the Internet, many colleges now look at an applicant's online history during the application process. According to a new Kaplan Test Prep survey, 35 percent of college admissions have visited an applicant's social media page to learn more about them. In 2008, just one in ten admissions officers reported doing so. 

The idea for the law sponsored by former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) came from an organization called Common Sense Media, which works to help kids prosper in the world of media and technology.

“Kids and teenagers can be impetuous, and what we were trying to provide was some sort of control so when kids put up their own content they can have control of it and take it down,” said Joni Lupovitz, vice president of policy at Common Sense Media.

READ MORE: Growing Concern Over Americans' Privacy Not Surprising

A 2013 study by Pew Research Center shows that teenagers do take steps to curate their appearance on social media. In fact, more than half of Internet-using teens have decided not to post content online over reputation concerns. Fifty-nine percent have either deleted or edited previous posts, and 53 percent report having deleted comments from others on their profile or account. One out of five have posted content that they later regretted sharing.

Lauren Ceballos, an 11-year-old Instagram user with around 500 followers, however, is not one of them. Rarely does she delete her posts, and when she does, it is not because of reputation concerns, but mainly to keep it organized — so that she can get more likes. As she explains, “I usually think about what I post before I do it.”

Despite her young age, she is already aware of her privacy online.

“If one of my friends have an account that isn’t private, we usually tell them that you should probably make it private so you know who can follow you,” she said.

Unlike the recently adopted “right to be forgotten" law in Europe, which gives EU citizens the right to have search results on the Internet removed if the information they link to appears inadequate or irrelevant, the law in California strictly applies to public postings or information that minors themselves have shared.

(Image by Signe Larsen)
(Image by Signe Larsen)
Critics say the new law is unnecessary since most of today’s websites already offer this ability.

“Pretty much every website you are a user of allows you to delete content, not because you necessarily have a legal right to do it, but because it is a necessary feature,” said Andy Seller, a staff attorney for the Digital Media Law Project housed at Harvard University. “People post stuff they regret all the time, and website operators know this so they usually let their users delete content.”

Common Sense Media agrees that a lot of online services already provide these tools, but says it wanted to be sure that all websites and apps provide minors with this kind of power.

"We thought it was important to give kids more control over their information online, and a lot of companies already provide these tools, so they agree as well,” Lupovitz said.

Despite this critique Steinberg believes the new bill, "SB 568", will help children as they grow up online.

“In addition to protecting children’s personal information from being used for exploitive commercial purposes, SB 586 educates about the potential consequences of a post and provides an explicit way for children to remove a regrettable post made during a moment of bad judgment,” Steinberg’s spokesman said via e-mail.

Constitutional Challenges

Others stress that the law may not survive if challenged in the courts.

“We don’t know yet how it is going to be used, and I think there are going to be lawsuits from various groups to test it,” said Michael Overing, professor and expert in First Amendment issues at USC.

”Remember, if the minor has posted something on a blog, the blog owner has a right to free speech," he said. "If it is my blog, I am going to cry foul, because I am given the right of free speech on my blog, and if you tell me I have to take down a minor’s post, that takedown notice is going to be censorship. I don’t think it’s legal.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco is also not too happy with the law’s potential free speech implications and says the law has one unconstitutional application.

“It certainly raises concern that there is not an exception in the law for information that pertains to the matter of public interest,” said David Greene, the organization’s senior staff attorney.

“Lupovitz, however, is not worried for the law’s road ahead and says that the bill “was carefully designed so that it would pass constitutional mustard and not run afoul of First Amendment considerations.”

READ MORE: The Fine Lines Of Celebrity Privacy

Another concern among critics is that the law can create a false sense of security.

“I do think we need to make it very clear that an eraser button so to speak doesn’t really protect you,” said Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely and founder of SafeTeens.com, both nonprofit Internet safety organizations.

“It is a false sense of security, and we can’t stop teaching younger people, as well older people, that what you post matters and that it could be seen by a large audience, literally instantaneously.”

But in Sacramento where the law was passed without a single no vote, the law is believed to have the opposite effect.

“The bill requires operators to inform minors that even though their posts may be taken down from visible places on the Internet, that doesn’t mean their statements are gone forever,” said the senator’s spokesman. “This doesn’t create a false sense of security and in fact serves as a warning sign of the potential dangers ahead.”

Lauren’s father, Marco Ceballos, is also positive.

“I don’t see a downside to it,” he said. “We have to do something to protect the kids, and I think that delete button probably will go a long way in doing that.”

Raising Kids Online

One thing all sides agree on is the importance of education and good parenting — and for good reasons. Research points to the fact that teenagers are increasingly sharing personal information on social media sites, but aren’t too concerned about third-party access to their data.

According to the survey by Pew Research Center 91 percent of teens post pictures of themselves, compared to 79 percent in 2006. Also, 20 percent post their cellphone number. In 2006 only 2 percent did so. Nonetheless, 60 percent are not worried about third-party access to their data. On the other hand, 81 percent of their parents reported being concerned.

However, many parents feel ill-equipped to deal with their children’s technology, experts say. Annette Harrington, a mother of three who grew up without tablets and Internet, agrees.

“You don’t realize it until you hear from other parents,” Harrington said “I am from a small, small town, so I am learning through my kids. I didn’t know anything about this stuff that is going on.”

READ MORE: The Future Of Voiceprints

But raising kids online is not very different from real-world parenting, experts suggest.

“What I tell parents is to not make a big deal of Internet safety,” said Magid, who has written several Internet safety guides and chaired the education sub-committee in the Obama administration’s Online Safety & Technology Working Group.

“Ask your kids what they are doing online and get to know their cyber neighborhood like you know your physical neighborhood. But the most important thing is to talk to each other and to be a good role model.“

Lauren’s father, Marco Ceballos, hasn’t giving his children any specific guidelines, but has chosen to rely on “open lines of communications.” To him it’s very simple.

“It comes down to the expectations that you place on your child and that your child understands and accepts them,” he said.

Harrington, however, has found it necessary to resort to other means. When her two daughters were still in high school, she made sure that she had their password and logins. The change of rule happened after she discovered some very sexual lyrics on her daughter’s MySpace profile.

“I try to give them as much privacy as possible until they overuse it,” Harrington said. “I always say I give you enough rope to hang yourselves. Once you get into trouble, and I find something has happened, then you have lost all your rights and privileges, and it is an open book at that point.”

Michelle Gallo, a mother of two, has taken a similar approach. She follows her 9-year-old daughter on Instagram and has her profile settings set to private.

“I know that she and lot of her friends do selfies, and I tell her that it has to be appropriate and you are just taking a picture of your face and not to write anything bad,” Michelle Gallo. “So I think she knows not to post something that would be not proper.”

Meanwhile 11-year-old Lauren Ceballos lets the parents do the worrying. When asked if it makes her nervous to have the eyes of 500 followers on her, she says, “Not really because I want to be famous when I grow up.”

Contact Staff Reporter Signe Okkels Larsen here.



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