California Law Lets Minors Erase Online ‘Overshares’

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This week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that aims to protect the online privacy of minors in California by fashioning a right to erase content posted on the internet. Dubbed the “online eraser button”, it is the first law in the United States to give under eighteens the legal right to delete online indiscretions -- or ‘overshares’. The new law is specifically designed to protect "the teenager who says something on the Internet that they regret five minutes later," as explained by California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, but it does lead to questions about broader online privacy issues.

The bill looks like the next step to provisions laid out in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which already restricts collection of personal data from children under the age of 13, and is also part of a larger bill that prevents data-collecting websites to target minors with ads for specific products, such as alcohol, e-cigarettes, fireworks and guns.

A number of websites, including Facebook and Twitter, already allow all users to remove content, but this law will extend the same standard of privacy to all underage internet users in California.

While no one is arguing against the protection of minors, in any forum, including the Internet, we should pay close attention to some gaps and potential unintended consequences of this bill. It’s clearly no perfect fix. The law does not explicitly require websites to remove deleted data from their servers -- in other words, it’s not a hard delete -- and there is still no way to remove material (like a bad photo) that was posted by someone else. Moreover, it would be impossible to track down and delete every copy of a single post, or piece of information, created by sources that are constantly copying content from the Internet.

Then there is unintended possibility that companies may actually be compelled, through compliance with the advertising regulations, to collect even more information about consumers in order to determine which users are under eighteen and living in California. Given that most websites do not collect geolocation or user age data, this could be especially difficult.

This particular law is about protecting children, but it is also a slippery segue into a much larger discussion about online privacy and the way we create data. But before we get ahead of ourselves with a national law akin to the European Union’s Right To Be Forgotten, there are still questions that must be asked, and larger issues that need to be dealt with. Two of the biggest questions here are “who owns what data?”, and “if a user owns their data, what is the responsibility of the provider to give them avenues to remove it?”

Still, California is once again at the forefront of lawmaking that is trying to mitigate the impact of

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living more of our lives online -- policies that sometimes unwittingly set trends and expectations for the rest of the country. As attorney Mali Friedman explained to the The New York Times, "often you need to comply with the most restrictive state as a practical matter because the Internet doesn't really have state boundaries." Going further, the internet doesn’t respect national boundaries either.

California has made its move. Now what for continued national debates over privacy?