Regret that embarrassing social media post? California bill would make 'eraser' the law

Somini Sengupta / New York Times News Service /


SAN FRANCISCO — Kids. The reckless rants and pictures they post online can often get them in trouble, by compromising their chances of getting into a good college or even landing them in jail. What to do about such lapses vexes parents, school officials, the Internet companies that host their words and images — and the law.

Now California legislators are trying to solve the problem with the first measure in the country to give minors the legal right to scrub away their online indiscretions. The legislation puts the state in the middle of a turbulent debate over how best to protect children and their privacy on the Internet, and whether states should even be trying to tame the Web.

Gov. Jerry Brown has taken no position on the bill. He has until mid-October to sign it, after which, without his signature, the legislation becomes law.

California is often in the vanguard when it comes to digital privacy. It was the first state to require companies to report data breaches, and it requires websites and mobile apps to post privacy policies that explain how personal information is used. A recently passed law requires websites to tell users whether they honor browsers’ do-not-track signals.

Although many companies, including Facebook and Twitter, offer the option to their users to delete posts, the California bill would make it a right across the Internet for children who live in that state.

“Kids and teenagers often self-reveal before they self-reflect,” said James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that pushed for the law. “It’s a very important milestone.”

The rash revelations by a Texas teenager, Justin Carter, on Facebook in February — a threatened school shooting his family insists was sarcastic, made in the heat of playing a video game — landed him in a Texas jail on a felony terrorism charge for nearly six months. His father, Jack, favors the California legislation, but wonders if it would go far enough.

“They should be allowed to delete it, but then again is it really deleted?” Carter, 39, of San Antonio, said in an interview this week.

Also, Carter said, if his son had deleted the conversation that someone reported to the authorities, would the deletion be seen as destroying evidence?

His son, now 19, is out on a bond, pending trial. Any law trying to tame the Internet, he said, is likely to run into turbulence.

“It’s a whole new territory, it grew faster than the laws did,” Carter said. “We’re trying to come up with things to make it all neat. There’s collateral damage — my son being one of them.”

Critics of an eraser law see pitfalls. They warn that in trying to protect children, the law could unwittingly put them at risk by digging deeper into their personal lives. To comply with the law, for example, companies would have to collect more information about their customers, including whether they are younger than 18 and whether they are in California.

There are also practical concerns. If other states pass similar laws, companies would be forced to devise multiple policies for the underage residents of different states — confusing consumers and creating unwieldy requirements for Web businesses that are essentially stateless, except for issues like collecting sales tax. The Internet, opponents of the law say, should be regulated by a uniform set of rules, not piecemeal by the states.

“This is well-meaning legislation but there are concerns about it,” said Stephen Balkam, president of the Family Online Safety Institute, which advises companies like Facebook and Microsoft on online safety issues.

Balkam said he favored congressional oversight in issues like children’s online privacy and, if necessary, regulation by the Federal Trade Commission. “Where California leads, others follow,” he said. “I think it will be a mess.”

Some supporters of the bill say Internet companies got off easy. The eraser bill does not, for example, require companies to remove the deleted data from its servers altogether, nor does it offer any way to delete material that has been shared by others; a sensational picture that has gone viral, in other words, can’t be purged from the Internet.

And it is nothing like the right-to-be-forgotten measure that legislators in Europe have been pressing for. That proposal would, at its core, allow all Europeans, not just children, to delete their online personal information; several amendments to the plan address freedom of expression concerns.

“It’s an important first step, but there’s more to be done,” Steyer said.

Steyer’s organization, which participated in a safety advisory group with Facebook but soon left after disagreements with the company’s approach, has been pushing for more aggressive legislation. Those efforts in 2011 led members of Congress to propose a measure that would have allowed parents to scrub material posted by their children. Criticized by free speech advocates, the bill went nowhere, though Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who was a co-sponsor, plans to introduce it again this year.

Short of federal privacy laws in general, states have been passing laws on a host of privacy matters, in many cases following California’s lead.

“Often you need to comply with the most restrictive state as a practical matter because the Internet doesn’t really have state boundaries,” said Mali Friedman, a lawyer in the San Francisco office of Covington & Burling, a national law firm.