Why California's New Web-Wide Delete Button For Teens Won't Work

In a noble (if a bit misguided) attempt at ensuring minors' privacy on the web, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law requiring all websites to have an "eraser button" allowing users under 18 to delete their own posts. Too bad it's never going to work.

According to the legislation, all websites, apps, and online services will have until 2015 to give all the young, internet-dwelling hooligans of California a big, friendly button to delete their misdeeds. In a public letter addressed to Brown, James Steyer of nonprofit group Common Sense Media discussed the motivation behind the law:

[Social media] sites offer many benefits for connecting, communicating, and learning, yet children and teens often self-reveal before they self-reflect and may post sensitive personal information about themselves — and about others — without realizing the consequences.

In addition to this magic button, the law prohibits sites from collecting minors' personal information for marketing purposes and requires that they "clearly inform" minors of how to request a takedown for an offending post.

Now all this sounds nice in theory, but more than anything, this law is a testament to the fact that lawmakers (at least in California) have no real idea how the internet actually works. Perhaps the most glaring aspect overlooked in the legislation is the status of server data. Though the post will, theoretically, be deleted from the page, there are no stipulations requiring deletion of the actual data on the servers. Servers that may or may not be in California—which brings us to problem number two. Presumably, this law wants to regulate all websites, even those not under California's jurisdiction. Obviously, web sites with users in California won't necessarily have their servers based in the state, and it's highly unlikely that theses sites will comply with the restrictions.

So what does that mean for the law? Normally, this would entail blocking these sites from California-based IP addresses, but this law is only supposed to apply to minors. So access to the sites in noncompliance can't really be taken away. What's more, this law doesn't stop users from quoting minors' posts in a reply or post of their own. There's also a little something that we like to call "screenshots." And though the law is meant to combat bullying, this gives the bullies themselves an ephemeral outlet in which they can spew hate at their victim and promptly delete the evidence. And though total deletion of the bully's words obviously can't be guaranteed, if the popularity of Snapchat is anything to go by, impermanence is certainly an appealing prospect.

So good for California for at least trying to give the youth of the internet a safer, more friendly experience. But it seems that, this time at least, the state's bitten off more than it can chew. [Huffington Post, Common Sense Media]

Image: Shutterstock/Maria Uspenskaya