Does The Internet Need A ‘Delete’ Button? [We Ask You]

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The Internet has grown from a mere concept to an integral part of the everyday lives of most people in developed countries. And in a relatively short space of time. If you’re on the Internet then you’re truly on the Internet, with your name, location, and a host of other data about you following you around the Web like a bad smell; a bad smell that companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft can track.

Most of us are worried about maintaining some level of privacy online, but it’s insanely hard to embrace the new opportunities the Internet presents while anonymously hiding away in a dark recess of the Web. It’s all good until things go pear-shaped, at which point there is really no option left open to you.

This Week’s Question…

We want to know, Does The Internet Need A ‘Delete’ Button? This question is prompted by a discussion between Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and economist Nouriel Roubini at the New York University’s Stern business school, as reported by Fast Company.

Roubini grilled Schmidt about Google’s role in devolving privacy online, with some people suggesting that the search and advertising giant is one of the main offenders eating away at the idea of privacy. Schmidt defended his company, saying, “Let me be very clear that Google is not tracking you … it’s not doing all these things.” But then conceded the point that the Internet represents a challenge to the sense of fairness when it comes to an individual’s right to privacy.

He stated that “[the] lack of a delete button on the Internet is in fact a significant issue,” continuing to say, “there are times when erasure [of data] is the right thing … and there are times when it is inappropriate. How do we decide? We have to have that debate now.” A debate? Now? MakeUseOf delivers.

We want to know whether you believe the Internet needs a ‘Delete‘ button, which obviously wouldn’t be a literal button but an accepted process by which an individual could wipe their online slate clean, removing all traces of themselves and their activities from databases.

Should companies be allowed to track you across the Web as they currently do? Is it our own fault for giving up so much of ourselves to the Web companies that use us as their business models? Do you worry about your privacy on the Internet or do you accept that it’s an outdated concept that those of us who spend our lives attached to Internet-connected devices have given up on?

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Drawing Conclusions

All comments will be digested to form conclusions in a follow-up post next week where we will detail what You Told Us. One reader will be chosen for the coveted Comment Of The Week, getting their name up in lights, the respect of other readers, and 150 MakeUseOf points to use for MakeUseOf Rewards. What more motivation than that do you need to respond?

We Ask You is a weekly column dedicated to finding out the opinions of MakeUseOf readers. The questions asked are usually open-ended and likely to necessitate a discussion. Some are opinion-based, while others see you sharing tips and advice, or advocating tools and apps to fellow MakeUseOf Readers. This column is nothing without you, as MakeUseOf is nothing without you.

Image Credit: Matt McGee

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Comments (40)
  • Rob H

    As so often a simple question conceals an enormously complex situation. Let me go through a few scenarios.

    Suppose a celebrity is arrested by the Police, the story is covered in the press, but ultimately the case is never sent to court. What does that mean? Is the guy guilty but there was insufficient evidence or were the police acting on misinformation and got the wrong guy?. The initial arrest got front page headline coverage, the subsequent release might have got a paragraph on an inside page. Before the Internet that coverage would have been in print or on TV but now it’s on the internet forever. Search the guy’s name and up comes the “arrest” story. Most of us would look at that and say “no smoke without fire” and assume guilt, it’s a stain on his reputation forever and quite possibly totally undeserved. Should we demand legislation to force the publisher to remove the story of the arrest? As far as the newspaper is concerned the original story is true, he was arrested, its a fact, no reason why that should not stay on the record. Should we require the publisher to add an update to the story? It would be a monumental task and in any case the story may have been copied elsewhere on the internet and print copies of the newspaper remain accessible in archives and have never been subject to that requirement.
    If it were possible to remove the information is that necessarily the correct action, after all maybe he was guilty but there was insufficient evidence to proceed, or maybe he was prosecuted but found innocent once again giving us the dilemma, truly innocent or “got away with it”. What if the same happenned several times involving the same guy, doubtless he would claim “police persecution”, perhaps correctly but the public perception would progressively polarise to “he keeps getting away with it”.
    Should the press be prohibited from reporting arrests? The arrest of a high profile celebrity makes the headlines because it sells newspapers. The publishers and police assert that the publicity is good because it emboldens others to come forward with more evidence but surely that applies equally to a local mugger, put his photo and story of his arrest in the newspaper and others will say “he’s the one that mugged me too”. Maybe the solution is to require the press to give equal coverage to anyone arrested for a similar offence regardless of their celebrity. Good luck trying to get the newspaoers to agree to that idea! I got fined for breaking the speed limit once – not a single line even in the local in the press but were I a professional footballer: national coverage.
    Solutions: firstly we all need to grow up a bit and not jump to conclusions. It may be that as a society we have not adapted our attitude to the move of reporting from print to digital. Let me give an example. In the UK if someone gets shot it is often national news, we get less than one a week, in the US it’s about 240 a week so it’s become “normal” not newsworthy (4 killed in the Boston bombing gets global headlines but the 30+ killed by guns in US each day don’t even get a mention in US national news – unless its a celebrity). In the same way as the journalists in the US have become a lot more selective in what’s considered newsworthy we now all need to be applying a similar filter to, not so much current news stories, but to old stories dredged up by Google. I have already adapted much of my search activity. Suppose I’m looking for help with a technical issue with some software, if I restrict Google to “results from the past year” it reduces the number of results relating to obsolete versions of that software. (Example a search for PHPBB gets 250 million results, restrict results to the last year and it’s about 9 million.)

    Second scenario. A teenager goes to a party, makes some ill-advised choices in respect of alcohol, other substances, sexual partners and conduct. It all appears on Facebook. Should that remain globally accessible for the rest of their lives? For their grandchildren to see in 30 years time? For future employers or partners to see? As a teenager I was of course very well behaved but I have seen a photo which suggests I may have been a little the worse for wear from alcohol on one occasion – but that’s one of those old fashioned printed photos and accessible only to a very limited audience (but now YOU all know my secret past).
    Solution: You should have the right to delete data which you have posted yourself on Facebook for example but need to be sensible about what you post in the first place. That still leaves the problem of if a third party created the item you’d rather see deleted or if others have copied it. The only practical choice in that case is to ask them (in a friendly manner!).

    Third scenario – and a very common one. A politician’s speech is reported in which he makes bold statements with phrases like “I will…” and “never…”. And he means it but circumstances change. “We will never invade Liechtenstein” would seem a safe statement but suppose Liechtenstein gets a nuclear weapon and threatens to use it against us… Would we demand that he stand by his original committment? OK most scenarios are somewhat less extreme and politicians try to use weasel words like “we are firmly committed to” which isn’t quite as strong as “We will” and so we attack them for trying to make allowance for the fact that if circumstances change their answer might need to change too.
    Solution: To some exent we’ve already learnt to cope with this, but not in a very productive way we just say “all politicians are liars” whereas the truth is many are genuinely striving to do their best for their constituents and the country (and a few are outright crooks telling us whatever lies are necessary to get our support for getting involved in an illegal war, going on to earn millions in retirement – any guesses?). In reality its a matter of taking a more mature attitude and understanding that changing one’s mind in the light of changed circumstances is the right thing.

    I would class the tracking data Google and others accumulate from your internet activity as “yours” and you should be able to have it deleted.

    In summary – as I said its a simple question but there is no simple answer.
    As for “does the internet need a delete button”, in general the answer is yes. That’s no help because it’s just not possible. Because of the nature of the internet, an item may have been copied to multiple locations perhaps without the owners permission and so widely scattered.people may have personal copies downloaded to their PCs so it just isn’t possible.

    • Dave Parrack

      It certainly isn’t a simple question. And there never will be a literal ‘Delete’ button. But this at least gets the debate raging over privacy and what we should expect Web companies to do with our data. You present some interesting scenarios and possible solutions.

      The old adage that nothing is free in life rings true on the Web. If you’re not paying to use a service then that service will be using your data instead. Even if it’s just to the extent that you’re presented with ads geared towards you specifically.

    • Rob H

      On this topic: Does MakeUseOf have a delete button?
      If it does (will have?) what would happen to replies to a posting like this?
      Orphaned (still there but without the original posting) they’d look odd and may contain references to the original author and quotes from the posting.
      If they too were deleted that would be without the permission of the author of the response – is that acceptable practise? In that case I think the ideal process would be to allow the author of the response to agree deletion or edit his posting to make sense on its own. That’s probably too complicated a better pragmatic approach might just be to cover it in MakeUseOf terms and conditions like “Should a posting be deleted for whatever reason then any responses to that will also be deleted”.

  • BiG eViL…….

    Just like every building has an exit door, there should be an exit door for the internet as well where u can just use that door and feel content that hopefully you didn’t leave any tracks behind. pressing the delete and realize that your digital life i behind you and it’s not going to haunt you anymore. privacy is a big issue on the internet with people so connected to each other, a particular netizen feels like an overloaded garbage truck dropping trash (personal information) on the way leaving tracks for Google etc to track you with.

    • Dave Parrack

      The garbage truck is a good analogy. We’re all essentially leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that people can (and probably do) use to track us.

  • Vipul Jain

    As far as personal information is considered, one gives it up himself, no one has stolen your personal diary and made a blog on it. You can always delete that data yourself or lock down the privacy to avoid public viewing.
    Deleting your accounts does give you a clean slate, doesn’t it (though after a 15-40 day restoring option interval)?

    But when it comes to news, information and other data, I personally don’t agree with deleting anything. What may seem obsolete and useless to you, might be the most important thing for someone.

    As far as piracy goes, I wouldn’t lie and say that it’s bad and all, because for me, it is a boon. I wouldn’t have seen as many TV shows or movies or played as many games without going bankrupt, as I have now.. :D

    • Dave Parrack

      It doesn’t really give you a clean slate. A deleted photo or conversation on facebook is really just hidden from view rather than actually deleted, for example.

    • Vipul Jain

      A photo or chat yes, but one can delete the entire account permanently without options to recover. Facebook had recently announced it won’t store data for permanently deleted accounts for more than 60 days I think.

    • Dave Parrack

      The ability to delete an entire account is a good move on the part of Facebook. I still don’t see why they need to keep the data for 60 days though.

    • Vipul Jain

      Every user is a potential customer for Facebook.
      So I guess it’s logical that they’d give a 60 day period for someone to rethink their decision and join back.

  • Judith

    We need delete buttons for ALL programs that are installed on or can be installed on any device. Just my opinion. But too much garbage sometimes gets “dropped” on my pc when all I want to do is install ONE program. Quit with the add ons.

    • Dave Parrack

      This is more about data on the Internet than programs on hardware. But I agree, additional programs are immensely annoying!

  • Alfred Walsh

    I use neither face book or tweeter, the last thing I want to do is broadcast my information. I wish there were a way of removing it, I have no intention of ever using it.

    • Dave Parrack

      So that is directly stopping you from using social networking sites?

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.