Lucky Kids: California Gives Minors the Right to Delete Things They Put Online

The Golden State becomes the first state to demand that children have an "eraser button" online.

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We’ve all had that feeling of desperately wanting to grab at something we’ve sent out into the ether—to snatch that picture or comment back off the Internet, stuff it into our pocket and walk away whistling like nothing ever happened. On Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill designed to give minors, at least, an “eraser button.”

Coming as part of a bigger minor-focused bill that prohibits targeted online marketing of products like alcohol and firearms, the erasing provision states that any minor in the state of California be able “to remove … content or information posted on the operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application.”

The new state law is the first of its kind for the country and similar to the federal Do Not Track Kids Act, a bill that died in committee in 2011. It was sponsored by then-Rep. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Barton, who have vowed to reintroduce the bill this year. In a statement this month about children’s privacy, Markey said that the bill would prohibit targeted advertising, require consent from parents before any information is collected about their children and ensure “kids and teens 15 and younger have an eraser button to delete their personal information online.”

Advocates of the California bill have said it’s especially important for teenagers. According to youth advocacy non-profit Common Sense Media, 75% of teenagers have a profile on a social networking site. In another recent survey, just one quarter of teenage tweeters said their tweets were private; nearly 15% didn’t know whether they were or not. And about 20% of teenage social media users in that survey said they disclose their cell phone number online. In a Pew poll, the same proportion said they had uploaded something to the Internet that they later regretted sharing.

While privacy advocates have expressed support for the California measure, it still doesn’t give children complete control, of course. A company, per the law, does not have to delete anything posted by a third party—like a photo a friend put on Facebook that might hurt a kid’s future chances at getting a job and/or get him grounded until next July. Nor do companies have to delete the information from their servers. Critics have also questioned the logistics of implementing the new law, like how companies will find out whether any registered user lives in the Golden State.

The bill’s primary sponsor, state Sen. Tem Darrell Steinberg, sung the new law’s praises in a statement on Monday. “This is a groundbreaking protection for our kids,” he said, “who often act impetuously with postings of ill-advised pictures or messages before they think through the consequences.” Companies will have to clearly explain to young users that they have an option to delete content, give them clear instructions on how to do it and provide some means of deletion.

Tech giants like Twitter and Facebook already have deletion capabilities for rash individuals of all ages, though anyone at the center of an embarrassing situation knows that clicking a “delete” button is hardly the equivalent of a black hole. The bill, savvy to this caveat, also requires companies to tell kids this hard truth: “comprehensive removal” is never guaranteed. But at least the children of California, in all their silly, beautiful ignorance, will have a leg up in our modern, constant battle to not humiliate ourselves online.