Student Voices: “Right to be Forgotten” – Second Chances in the Internet Age?

Today, when our every behavior on the Internet leaves a traceable imprint, an increasing number of people call for “the right to be forgotten.” They argue that Internet users have the right to demand ISPs, IT companies and governments to delete any personal data that was collected about them, particularly if it can be put together to create a profile of the person.

In the not-so distant past, what happened in Vegas did really stay in Vegas (or at least with those who were there with you). Today, on the other hand, some child’s cries over a bit finger can spread like wildfire and stay on millions of servers forever. The Internet forces us to be accountable for our actions unlike ever before, having the potential of seriously hurting our futures.

California took the first step to fight this problem with a new bill that prohibits targeted online marketing of unsafe products to minors. It also includes an important clause that allows minors to remove personal content from various sites and online applications. The new “eraser law” is the first of its kind in the US, and was met with expected criticism. Teens actually do not get full control over their content because the law does not make companies delete content from their servers. And companies have to implement additional procedures to distinguish Californians from the rest of their customers, making business more difficult.

I am a firm believer in second chances, and that people grow from their mistakes. Unfortunate the past must not define a person in the present. Erasing our embarrassing history and re-writing on a clean slate should be a right… right? Isn’t that why pencils come with erasers?

But I also realize that clean slates come with respective cost. Besides, can they ever be made… clean enough?

To quote yet another cliché, there is no such thing as a free lunch. As we use online services, we must be ready to pay in one form or another. Companies need incentives for providing content like money or – something that’s potentially way more profitable – your personal information.

I was surprised to find free services such as HushMail, RiseUp and Zoho that promise not to read your mail. But if you wish to continue using Gmail and Facebook, it is highly advisable that you log off from your accounts as soon as possible. You can also use the “private mode” that is available on most browsers, which automatically deletes your cookies. But this mode only deletes your history and does not shield your IP address.

Some of the more affluent paranoiacs or geniuses, depending on how you look at it, might be interested in the following. $55 or $85 would not only get you an account with a service that promises to keep out of your mailbox, but would even allow you to customize the domain name. There is also the option of setting up your own email server. If “private mode” is not enough, you can mask your IP address through a VPN services such WiTopia, PrivateVPN and StrongVPN for a range of prices between $40 and $99 per year. Keio like other universities also offers a free VPN service for its students to access otherwise expensive journals and masks activity from your internet provider. Unfortunately, your activity instead gets monitored by your administration.

Certainly using a combination of the above and not registering with the same email for various services seems like a good place to start. But would all that trouble and money really do the trick? To what extent can we trust even the paid services?

Though speaking from ignorance of internet architecture, I share my skepticism with many others who say that there is no absolute guarantee of privacy on the internet. Speculating on the potential power and value of the big data and considering the relatively lower segment of internet users who are actually willing to pay for service, aspiring new companies are likely to follow the “free” business model. And in the absence of regulations that monitor how the “no snooping” companies are complying with their policies, it might be safer to assume the worst regardless of their manifestos. At least we saw it coming, we can say.