The Internet Never Forgets: How to Live in the 21st Century

Do we have the right to be forgotten? This rather intriguing question was posed last night by Jeff Rosen, at an Internet privacy event at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. I was particularly interested because having used the Internet since 1995-ish, I have contributed all sorts of content, some of which my present self probably wouldn't have chosen to broadcast to the world.

Fortunately the worst consequences of my online youth have been a few pictures of me wearing silly wigs, and a slightly embarrassing third-prize-winning essay on medical education. I'm too old to have been routinely documenting my teenage years on Facebook and Twitter as millions do today, so I have mostly escaped the compromising photographs and ill-judged pronouncements that might come back to bite many of today's youth. But these people are in a bind -- the lure of using social media to share their lives with their friends and beyond (complete with all the angst, drama, and mistakes of their formative years) ... versus the potential consequences of an Internet that doesn't forget.

Thanks to social media, something silly you thought or did at age 15 could easily appear for all to judge 10, 20, or 50 years later at the tap of a button. Jeff Rosen told us last night that two-thirds of employers Google their potential employees (when I tweeted this, someone responded that the other third are just being naïve). We've all heard talk of employers demanding their employees' Facebook passwords. And Google's recent move to integrate our information in its products has helped us realize that we can't necessarily rely on privacy settings either. Nor can we just click "delete" -- once something's on the Internet, it's pretty hard to take it back, because people share it and modify it until it's not really yours anymore. Which makes it hard to assert the right to be forgotten. Jeff Rosen told us about an Argentinian pop star who sued Google and Yahoo for that right after some racy pictures appeared online and "went viral." She was successful, but it meant them deleting her entire online presence, a move that could be detrimental to living a normal life as the 21st century evolves.

Particularly with the demise of the Internet pseudonym, we are all learning to be accountable for our online personalities, because increasingly, there will be no such thing as leaving your work at the office or keeping your personal life at home. Anyone can follow me on Twitter -- past, present and future colleagues, clients, and patients included. So I'm going to avoid writing anything compromising. But I wouldn't necessarily have predicted or implemented this need for caution as a flighty teenager.

Patients are Googling their doctors now, and many people are wondering how an easily accessed display of dodgy pictures, ill-advised comments, and general silliness would affect their respect for their doctor. Of course, perhaps it could help, by making patients feel their doctors are more human, thus improving their working relationships. At any rate, with exciting and positive health care innovations upon us, avoiding the Internet probably isn't the answer. So it's exciting to read the U.K. General Medical Council's much-awaited recent draft recommendations for doctors' use of social media, a commendably measured and flexible response to the new world that not only legitimizes doctors' use of social media, but will also no doubt be helpful for doctors around the world trying to understand how best to interact online.

It feels as though we are at a cusp, where we're all inputting personal details and content vigorously and increasingly usefully in all sorts of online contexts. But when it comes to good judgment and really, deeply understanding the potential future consequences of everything we do online, I reckon we're all still teenagers, clicking "I have read the terms and conditions'" without having done any such thing.

In a generation or two, I'm sure we'll all be a lot more savvy. Or perhaps online indiscretions will become so ubiquitous as to be rendered irrelevant. For now, we need to use our psychic superpowers to imagine how every action we take might affect the future us. This approach will affect our online personalities. I wonder whether it might affect our real-life personalities, too... Our paradigm for living has shifted, and probably faster than we can understand the implications. And like it or not, we all have our heads in the cloud.