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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 Online Privacy: Do You Share Too Much Information? Online Privacy: Do You Share Too Much Information? Sharing has always been a prominent part of what the Internet is and how it functions. And with social networks exploding in popularity in the past several years, sharing is probably the one aspect we... Read More , 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.

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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 How Many Devices That Can Connect To The Internet Do You Own? [MakeUseOf Poll] How Many Devices That Can Connect To The Internet Do You Own? [MakeUseOf Poll] Today, I’d like to know how many devices you own. But I’m not necessarily referring to smartphones this time, but to any and all devices that can connect to the Internet. This includes smartphones, tablets,... Read More have given up on?

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, and the respect of other readers. 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

  1. Rob H
    May 13, 2013 at 10:29 am

    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
      May 13, 2013 at 11:24 pm

      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
        May 14, 2013 at 9:19 am

        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".

  2. BiG eViL.......
    May 13, 2013 at 7:51 am

    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
      May 13, 2013 at 11:20 pm

      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.

  3. Vipul Jain
    May 10, 2013 at 6:37 am

    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
      May 11, 2013 at 3:41 am

      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
        May 11, 2013 at 7:43 am

        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
          May 13, 2013 at 11:19 pm

          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
          May 14, 2013 at 8:55 am

          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.

  4. Judith
    May 9, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    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
      May 11, 2013 at 3:39 am

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

  5. Alfred Walsh
    May 9, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    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
      May 11, 2013 at 3:38 am

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

  6. Humpster Sameasabove
    May 9, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    delete all you want,but we all know that once whatever you just put on there its on there for the life of the internet.... delete away!

  7. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    May 9, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    While internet acting like a virtual historian obviously has it advantages, I think a 'delete' button is needed. It isn't fair to judge someone based on shameful photo he/she made as a teen and stupid blog post which accidentally went public when he/she mixed up 'post' and 'delete'. While everything we say in the internet we indirectly given up rights on, there should be a way to control to our privacy.
    This becomes complicated when we realize our data is scattered in servers all over the world, none of them we have physical access to. We let bits and pieces of ourselves in strangers' hard disk. How can we know when 'delete' actually means 'delete' instead of 'hide'? When's deleting our presence is a legitimate action? I'm sure we'll have a lot of interesting questions spawned on this subject alone. We still have a long way to go to reach any conclusion.
    As they say, preventing is better than curing, so the best way to protect yourself is to stop posting mindlessly using your real name.

    • Dave Parrack
      May 11, 2013 at 3:37 am

      Thinking about what you're putting online in the first place is indeed the first step. But everyone makes mistakes. It may be impossible to put anything approaching a 'Delete' button in place, but who knows what the future holds.

  8. Bob Ashmore-Harris
    May 9, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    I think it would make sense for those who have passed away for social reasons as well as providing a level albeit small of data consistency. Most other uses would be to open to abuse. The techy security nut would likely use it quite frequently if such a function existed which would have more negative effects than positive. Those that didn't understand it would likely just cause them additional problems. Additionally if it existed those wishing to hide less than legal activities online would have quite an easy way to do this. Unless use of such of a function was tracked or controlled by governments or some kind of authority to prevent the data slipping through the net if required for crinkly investigation.

    • Dave Parrack
      May 11, 2013 at 3:35 am

      What to do with personal data when someone passes is another debate, albeit a very interesting one. There does seem to be movement on that, with companies increasingly offering ways to close accounts on behalf of loved ones who have died.

  9. dragonmouth
    May 9, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    While it might be nice to have, it is much too late for a "Delete" button. Pandora's box has been opened and cannot be closed. There are too many entities in posses ion of our data to even contemplate its complete deletion. Besides, each and every entity will argue very strongly for their right/need to retain the data. By saying “there are times when erasure [of data] is the right thing … and there are times when it is inappropriate." Mr.Schmidt is already positioning himself to argue Google case for retention of any data in their possession.

    "How do we decide?"
    WE don't decide. The owner of the data decides. Mr. Schmidt and his employers DO NOT have a say in the matter. Unless they are following the maxim that possession is 9/10ths of the law.

    " We have to have that debate now."
    There is no debate, there is no "WE". If, as the owner of the data, I decide to expunge it from the Internet, not Mr.Schmidt, not his employers, not the government have any say in it. Privacy is like being pregnant, either you are or you're not, either we have privacy or we don't. There is no partial privacy just as there is no partial pregnancy.

    Of course, in the real world everybody wants to know everything about everybody. Whether it is vital for business interests, as in the case of Google, Amazon, etc., or for "national interests" as is the case with governments, we will never be allowed to expunge traces of ourselves from the Internet.

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      May 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm

      I like this a lot.
      It's hard to delete anything you've exposed to the internet. Even if you try to delete it and assuming the service is honest enough to delete our data from their server, someone has probably has it downloaded to his/her own computer.
      Whether it is vital for business interests, as in the case of Google, Amazon, etc., or for “national interests” as is the case with governments, we will never be allowed to expunge traces of ourselves from the Internet.
      One reason why I don't believe in 'truly open internet'. Internet wouldn't be as open as people want it to be. Business is business. Even if Google or Amazon or anything else fall, there'd be replacements.

      • dragonmouth
        May 9, 2013 at 6:38 pm

        The last time I Googled myself, I found data about myself that I did not know even existed. Now, that is scary. Makes one think about what databases Google has access to and how secure they are.

        • Lisa Santika Onggrid
          May 9, 2013 at 6:52 pm

          Last time I Googled myself, I found complete data of myself that I never put online. Apparently my extracurricular class' secretary had uploaded members' data online without encryption. It made me realize how hard it's to keep your privacy nowadays.

        • Dave Parrack
          May 11, 2013 at 3:33 am

          That's where the big problem lies. It's all well and good us being careful about what we put online ourselves but there's little recourse if someone else does it for you.

        • Dave Parrack
          May 11, 2013 at 3:32 am

          That IS scary.

    • Dave Parrack
      May 11, 2013 at 3:32 am

      You're likely correct, sadly. This needed to be put in place when the Web entered the mainstream, and the horse has now bolted. Still, having the discussion could mean we get more powers over data pertaining to us. Or perhaps that's just wishful thinking on my part.

      • dragonmouth
        May 11, 2013 at 1:08 pm

        All your data is ours!

        The Pandora's Box has been opened.

  10. Terri R
    May 9, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    I must be naïve on this subject. To my knowledge programs like Windows-Control Panel- Internet- delete browsing history and cookies erased your tracks? Is this not true?
    What about Advance Care does that not erase your web sites you visited? I am sure there are more programs the have this same claim. Right?

    • jen
      May 9, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      That will only delete your browsing history on your computer, that doesn't delete it from residing elsewhere on the internet.

    • Dave Parrack
      May 11, 2013 at 3:30 am

      That deletes things locally on your computer, but not from the Internet. Unless Google, for example, deletes something from its servers it will still exist, even if it's not hidden from you personally.

  11. Prafulla Bhalde
    May 9, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I have a question unrelated to the topic.

    Can somebody tell me, why does that keyboard in the pic, has the 'backspace' button labeled as Delete??

    • bshell
      May 9, 2013 at 4:48 pm

      It's an Apple keyboard.

      • Harshit J
        May 11, 2013 at 3:54 am

        That's funny :D

  12. Harshit J
    May 9, 2013 at 10:00 am

    No, not a complete delete button, but something like a simple dashboard which shows all websites and services I am active on and let me delete my identity and traces from selected web services. It can be possible only if the entire information I am sharing is running on my own server, which is not the case.

    • Dave Parrack
      May 11, 2013 at 3:28 am

      That is a brilliant idea, though one which would take an incredible amount of cooperation between websites and Web companies. Still, we can but dream.

  13. Zhong J
    May 9, 2013 at 4:17 am

    Deleting obsolete information sounds nice in a way to save space usage and relieve the over-expanding dominance of the Internet as it consumes server's containing these data, which sucks out more power due to the amount of server there are. The more philosophical question is when is it appropriate for such removal to occur, depending on the authority of the owner and the reasons. Per say, a murder want to erase his data for criminal escape and we should abide to his wish?

    This kind debate can lead to issues that other people can take advantage, I'd say we need a Congress.

    • dragonmouth
      May 9, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      "a murder want to erase his data for criminal escape and we should abide to his wish? "
      Yes, we should. Only a stupid criminal would trust his escape plan to the Internet. Be that as it may, who determines what can or cannot be erased? The owner of the data? The government? The company that stores the data? Suppose you have some incriminating emails to your girl friend floating around in cyberspace, do you think your wife would allow you to delete them before she saw them? Or suppose there are some emails detailing how you stashed millions of dollars in off-shore accounts. Do you think the IRS would let you delete them? Once you start exempting some types of records from deletion you start the process of exempting ALL types of records from deletion.

      "I’d say we need a Congress."
      Yes, we need the Congress' electronic records scrutinized very closely. But of course our esteemed legislators will hide those records behind the cloak of legislative privilege, national security or some other subterfuge like that.

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        May 9, 2013 at 6:04 pm

        "Only a stupid criminal would trust his escape plan to the Internet."
        You haven't heard someone puts his business plans in cloud storage service?

        Ah yes. How we determine what is allowed to be deleted?
        In real life we can remove sensitive documents by shredding them, but that's easy because we own the physical object. In the internet, who 'owns' our data? In the internet, we're completely at the mercy of services we use. That doesn't even guarantee our 'deleted' data is actually 'deleted'.
        Critical insight as always.

        • dragonmouth
          May 9, 2013 at 6:32 pm

          "That doesn’t even guarantee our ‘deleted’ data is actually ‘deleted’."
          A "Delete" command performs a logical, not a physical deletion, i.e. it gets rid of file information from the volume table of contents. The file is still there intact, ready to be recovered with any one of the hundreds of Undelete programs. The file/data also exists on any backups of the server. To actually purge a file from the Internet is next to impossible, even without anybody having downloaded a copy. So it is GUARANTEED that the file/data will exist forever.

    • Dave Parrack
      May 11, 2013 at 3:26 am

      As everything on the Internet you have to take the rough with the smooth. It's an opportunity as well as a hindrance, and can be used by all. Unfortunately that also means it can be abused, so the same rules would surely apply to a criminal as the rest of us.

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