New California Law Tries to Save Kids from Themselves Online

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
(photo: Perth Now)

Kids who regret their past online indiscretions, and the mortified parents who commiserate with them, received a soothing assurance this week that there is something they can do about their plight when Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that appears to give them a do-over.

But technology aficionados doubt it’s going to make a big difference, while privacy advocates and legal experts wonder if there aren’t some Constitutional problems with the law.

Senate Bill 568, which takes effect on January 1, 2015, lets minors delete photographs and other posts on social media like Facebook by doing it themselves or requesting a site operator to do it. The law only covers material posted by the individual, so pictures uploaded by vengeful ex-lovers or heartless compatriots live forever in infamy. It is the first such piece of legislation in the nation.

But, as Gregory Ferenstein at TechCrunch pointed out, most social media already have a “delete button” for rectifying the mortifying situation. And what happens to photos that have been reposted elsewhere, archived by Google or interacted with by, say, some reader who “likes” the Facebook picture of a passed-out student in a compromising position? Some courts have already upheld the First Amendment protection of “liking” something.  

There also seems to be some question as to whether an incriminating item can be deleted once the poster turns 18. Another small detail that could still come back to haunt the poster later in life is that the law compels companies to take down the offending material, but not necessarily delete it from the computer server.

California, as usual, is breaking new ground in this area and it remains to be seen what complications it may cause for Internet companies if other states follow suit with their own laws on the subject. A member of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) told state Assembly members in June that the law raises questions about violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause since the Internet crosses state lines.

CDT also argued that the law could, ironically, reduce privacy protections for minors, and everyone else, by pushing online operators to sort out who is a minor through maintenance of more elaborate profiles of its users. The law also could encourage operators to make their sites and services less accessible by minors.

The new law also prohibits companies from targeting minors with web advertising for products and services involving guns, ammunition, alcohol, paint aerosols, etching creams that can deface property, tobacco-related materials, dangerous fireworks, tanning devices and a whole lot more.

It remains to be seen if any of this law is enforceable or can have a noticeable effect on minors.

–Ken Broder   


To Learn More:

On California’s Bizarre Internet Eraser Law For Teenagers (by Gregory Ferenstein, TechCrunch)

California Gives Teens an “Eraser Button” to Hide Online Skeletons (by Steven Musil, CNET)

Brown OKs Bill Allowing Minors to Delete Embarrassing Web Posts (by Melanie Mason and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

CDT Testifies on Two California Bills that Threaten Free Expression and Privacy Online (by Zach Lerner, Center for Democracy and Technology)

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