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From the Internet to eternity

Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, 25, a high school teacher in training in Pennsylvania, posted a photo on MySpace that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.”

world Updated: Aug 29, 2010 00:07 IST

Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, 25, a high school teacher in training in Pennsylvania, posted a photo on MySpace that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.”

After seeing the picture, her school supervisor told her the photo was “unprofessional”. The dean of the university where Snyder was enrolled said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of underage students. Days before Snyder’s graduation, the university denied her a degree. Snyder sued, arguing the university had violated her rights by penalizing her for legal, after-hours behavior. A judge rejected the claim, saying Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern.

The problem Snyder faced is a challenge confronting millions of people. How best to live in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever.

With Web sites like LOL Facebook Moments, which collects and shares embarrassing personal revelations, ill-advised photos and online chatter are coming back to haunt people even years after the fact.

Examples:

A 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”

A 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the US but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found the therapist had written an article describing his experiments 30 years ago with LSD.

Facebook has 500 million members who share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month with the average user creating 70 pieces of content a month. The fact the Internet never seems to forget is threatening a person’s ability to control his or her identity; to preserve the option of reinventing and starting anew; to overcome checkered pasts. Far from being a permissive era, with infinite second chances, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

People are searching for responses to the challenge of preserving control of our identities in a digital world that never forgets.

Alex Türk, France’s data-protection commissioner, has called for a “constitutional right to oblivion” that would allow citizens to maintain a greater degree of anonymity online and in public places.

In Argentina, writers Alejandro Tortolini and Enrique Quagliano have started a campaign to “reinvent forgetting on the Internet,” exploring a range of political and technological ways of making data disappear.

In February, the European Union financed a campaign called “Think B4 U post!” that urges young people to consider the “potential consequences” of publishing photos of themselves or their friends without “thinking carefully” and asking permission.

In the US, those who think their online reputations have been unfairly tarnished can turn to firms like ReputationDefender, which cleans up your online image. Founder Michael Fertik said, “I was seeing articles about the Lord of the Flies behavior that all of us engage in at that age and it felt un-American that when the conduct was online, it could have permanent effects on the speaker and the victim.”

Tweaking your Google profile may not be enough as Web 2.0 swiftly gives way to Web 3.0 — a world in which user-generated content is combined with a new layer of data aggregation and analysis and live video. Facial-recognition technology will soon mean people will be able to snap a picture of a stranger, plug into Google, and pull up all tagged and untagged photos of that person the Web.

Internet searches for images are likely to be combined with aggregator search engines, like today’s Spokeo, which combine data from online sources — including political contributions, blog and YouTube posts, Web comments, real estate listings and photo albums. Or the new Web site Unvarnished, which allows people to write anonymous reviews about anyone.

Legal scholars have begun imagining new laws that could allow people to correct, or escape from, such reputation. Paul Ohm, a law professor at the University of Colorado, wants to make it illegal for employers to fire or refuse to hire anyone on the basis of legal off-duty conduct revealed in Facebook postings or Google profiles.

Now while norms are developing for off-the-record spaces, Gmail has introduced a feature that forces you to think twice before sending drunken e-mail messages.

After taking down her MySpace profile, Snyder got new job and became a very private person. Her success as a human being who can learn from her mistakes and grow in wisdom has nothing to do with the digital file she can never entirely escape. Human character, ultimately, can’t be judged by strangers on the basis of Facebook or Google profiles; it can be judged by only those who know us and have time to evaluate strengths and weaknesses, face to face and in context, with insight and understanding.

NYT