Undoing Your Digital Past: Censorship or Privacy?

Type in "Delete yourself from the Internet" on Google and a dozen sites pop up to give you a crash course on the many ways in which you can delete yourself permanently from the World Wide Web, along with the hundreds of embarrassing photos, offensive comments, and humiliating tirades posted during momentary lapses in judgment.

Yes, the same Internet that makes you divulge first, regret later, also offers you a chance at redemption -- brought to you by none less than Google, that omniscient purveyor of all things digital, the very entity that caused that information to be so easily accessible in the first place.

The relative obscurity of webpages, the anonymity of online identities, and the innocuous nature of a computer screen combined together to prompt us to divulge more and more in the Internet age, even as privacy advocates and media scholars warned us about the unforgettable memory of the Web.

Emily Gould described the perils of oversharing on the Internet as well as anyone after her relatively private blog exploded from relative obscurity to an open journal for the world to see. "In real life, we wouldn't invite any passing stranger into these situations, but the remove of the Internet makes it seem O.K.," she wrote.

Now, with Facebook and Twitter and Google, there are ever more areas for oversharing, and with them, increasing avenues for finding and exploiting that information. Everything we ever do seems to be recorded on the Internet in such consistent fashion, that the two appear inextricably linked.

So far, users have been held liable for the irresponsibility of posting too much information about themselves--as they should be. But as companies use Internet content more and more for consumer data and advertising, employers monitor social-media updates by their employees, and schools track their students' online escapades, there is more and more need to hold organizations accountable for their exploitation of such information.

Should there be some safeguards in place for users who get plagued by the persistence of their past actions (and in some cases, even non-actions) due to the indelible memory of the Internet?

In a world where visitors can be turned away from countries because of online records of their past research, fired from jobs owing to Facebook posts, and suspended from school because of their tweets, Netizens should certainly be entitled to some protections.

With Google consolidating its privacy policy across services, tying users' online searches to their Gmail conversations and videos watched on YouTube, more comprehensive and very unwitting online profiles are emerging. Short of "divorcing" Google, it's hard to escape the terrifying watchfulness of what started as a search engine and now offers everything from e-mail to social networks.

Add to all this, the increasing number of tools available to find and make connections online via advanced facial recognition technology.

In the near future, augmented reality tools such as Google Glass and Augmented ID could take this even further, allowing face recognition and identification across platforms, and even in the real world. Potentially, you could be identified in a YouTube video recorded years earlier or walking on the street today based on a Facebook profile picture.

Sure, this may be a little premature and paranoid, but it is fear such as this that has led to the umpteen propositions to delete yourself from the Internet.

Everything from the "constitutional right to oblivion," "reinvent forgetting on the Internet" to the "right to be forgotten," have been proposed.

Companies already exist that offer to help correct your image online, optimize search engine results in your favor, or even erase your online personality altogether. Web 2.0 Suicide Machine lets you do just what its name indicates -- commit a digital suicide to erase every embarrassing photo or nonsensical status ever posted with the single click of a "commit" button.

Reputation Defender uses technological tools to manage and clean your online reputation -- by balancing out negative posts and images with more positive and neutral content by exploiting search engine metrics and having sites take down offensive information.

These tools are helpful because we cannot always expect the Web and the wisdom of the crowd to allow the most appropriate content to rise to the top. A simple example of this is that people tend to post unsatisfactory comments about businesses or services quicker than accolades because there is a certain expectation for a service or product.

But do reputation brokers and technological tools help fix the real problem? How authentic is the image of a person after it has been gleaned of all wrongdoing on the Web? Those who have the time, inclination and money can afford reputation defenders and lawyers who can makeover their online personae. But what does this do for the democratic, free-for-all nature of the World Wide Web? And besides, do we really want to be censoring content on the Internet?

Trends on the Web, largely gleaned through social media and anecdotal information on blogs and microblogs, help track infectious diseases, analyze the stock market, gauge the collective mood of communities, measure political sentiment of societies, and so on. This was the reasoning behind the Library of Congress' project to archive all tweets, reinforcing the significance of the social networking site as a valuable snapshot of our culture.

Perhaps we are focusing on the wrong problem. What we should be worrying about is not the presence of data, but the right use of that data. So far, this is being done on an individual or organizational level or a case-by-case basis. But real protections should be put in place so companies and employers are not exploiting the information that is out their against consumers and employees.

As Paul Ohm, a University of Colorado law professor, points out in this New York Times piece, "We could say that Facebook status updates have taken the place of water-cooler chat, which employers were never supposed to overhear, and we could pass a prohibition on the sorts of information employers can and can't consider when they hire someone."

Perhaps such regulations will actually be implemented when we start to encounter more and more advanced technologies that begin to blur the lines between our real and digital worlds. Because, guess what? Protections to safeguard our privacy in the real world already exist. Strangely, the very technologies we are terrified about -- Google Glass, Augmented ID and other such tools that combine GPS and facial-recognition technology with our calendars and address books to track our every move -- may come to our rescue, as they bring the relatively subtle information surveillance that takes place on the Web right where we can see it, on the streets.