In the early nineties, the internet was greeted with immense optimism and anticipation. Scarcely a week went by without some major personality – Al Gore and Bill Gates come to mind – championing its development, saying it would bring the world together and lead to “the information age”. After just a few years, these predictions were being mocked by just about everyone on the planet who had access.
Yes, despite all that has been made possible by the internet, the heady optimism that was present in those early days seem horribly naive by today’s standards. In addition to making virtually any database accessible to anyone, the world wide web has also enabled child pornographers, hate speech, conspiracy theorists and misinformation like never before.
What’s more, a person’s online presence opens them to new means of identity theft, cyberbullying, and all kinds of trolling and harassment. Who can forget the cases of Amanda Todd or Rethaeh (Heather) Parsons? Two young women who committed suicide due to relentless and disgusting bullying that was able to take place because there simply was no way to stop it all.
And with the ever expanding online presence of children and youths on the internet, and little to no controls to monitor their behavior, there are many campaigns out there that hope to reign in the offenders and protect the users. But there are those who have gone a step further, seeking to put in place comprehensive safeguards so that trollish behavior and hurtful comments can be stopped before it becomes a permanent part of the digital stream.
One such person is California Governor Jerry Brown, who recently signed a bill into law that requires all websites to provide an online “erase button” for anyone under 18 years of age. The stated purpose of the law is to help protect teens from bullying, embarrassment and harm to job and college applications from online posts they later regret. The law, which is designated SB568, was officially passed on Sept. 23rd and will go into effect Jan 1st, 2015.
Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based non-profit organization that advocates child safety and family issues, was a major supporter of the bill. In a recent interview, CEO James Steyer explained the logic behind it and how it will benefit youths:
Kids and teens frequently self-reveal before they self-reflect. In today’s digital age, mistakes can stay with and haunt kids for their entire life. This bill is a big step forward for privacy rights, especially since California has more tech companies than any other state.
The law is not without merit, as a 2012 Kaplan survey conducted on college admissions counselors shows. In that study, nearly a quarter of the counselors interviewed said they checked applicants’ social profiles as part of the admission process. Of those counselors, 35% said what they found – i.e. vulgarities, alcohol consumption, “illegal activities” – negatively affected their applicants’ admissions chances.
But of course, the bill has its share of opponents as well. Of those who voted against it, concerns that the law will burden websites with developing policies for different states appeared to be paramount. Naturally, those who support the bill hope it will spread, thus creating a uniform law that will remove the need to monitor the internet on a state-by-state basis.
At present, major social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine already allow users of any age to delete their posts, photos and comments. California’s “eraser button” law requires that all websites with users in the state follow this policy from now on. And given the presence of Silicon Valley and the fact that California has one of the highest per capita usages of the internet in the country, other states are sure to follow.
The new law also prohibits youth-oriented websites or those that know they have users who are minors from advertising products that are illegal to underage kids, such as guns, alcohol and tobacco. Little wonder then why it was also supported by organizations like Children NOW, Crime Victims United, the Child Abuse Prevention Center and the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.
In addition to being a legal precedent, this new law represents a culmination of special interests and concerns that have been growing in size and intensity since the internet was first unveiled. And given the recent rise in parental concerns over cyberbullying and teen suicides connected to online harassment, its hardly surprising that something of this nature was passed.