California Dreaming


A pal in California drew my attention to a news report and an editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s dated 1st June, 2011.

Silicon Valley’s local newspaper

The Chronicle is one of Silicon Valley’s key local papers. I’m not a regular reader but I have always understood that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chronicle is reasonably clued up on cyber stuff and not prone to the hysteria which can affect some parts of the media whenever anything to do with the internet hoves into view.

On the day in question the Chronicle carried a report and an editorial on the fate of the Internet Privacy Bill. It had just been presented a second time in the State Legislature by Senator Ellen Corbett, a Democrat.

Senator Corbett’s Bill essentially envisaged social networking sites being required to create strong default privacy settings for new users. These would cover such things as current location, home address, telephone number, financial accounts and mother’s maiden name. Of course the user could later liberalise these settings if they chose to but this is how things would be at the off.

96 hour deadline

The Bill also anticipated sites being required to remove all personally identifiable information within 96 hours of a request from a user, or a parent in the case of someone who is under the age of 18.

Rather predictably leading industry players, through the Internet Alliance, opposed the measure. Seemingly one of the arguments they advanced in relation to the 96 hours proposal was that

Social networks do not currently have the technology to delete a customer’s information from the entire site.

I think I know what the Alliance was trying to say but this was a very poor way of expressing it. Once information is out on the internet you never know where it will end up. It is foolish to pretend you can ever be sure to get it all back, much less make an individual site responsible for so doing.

However, it was precisely because that is the case the leader in the Chronicle argued the clause was so necessary i.e. if these sensitive items were private by default it would reduce the possibility of the information they contained escaping into the void. They could only be released with the individual’s express knowledge and consent. This would require at least a minimal degree of thought and active engagement.

Gone but not forgotten

The Bill was beaten by five votes, with eight Senators absent. No doubt those eight will be called to explain their disappearance. The Bill may yet appear again in another form. 

Moreover, lest we forget, under the US Federal System there is many a slip ‘twixt State Legislature and the US Supreme Court. Getting something ostensibly passed into law in a single state does not mean it will necessarily ever be put into effect. Legal challenges are the norm not the exception in this area.

If you can’t win in the West

The point, though, is obvious. The debate in the internet’s home state is really not so very different from the debate in many other parts of the world.

If a vote of that kind can get so close in California I wonder if any internet company really believes it can hold back the tide for very much longer anywhere else on the planet?

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Executive Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This was renewed in 2018. More:
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