Regulators have been wrestling with this issue in terms of the processing of our personal information. I first came across the issue of data protection when I served as a Freedom of Information Officer during my early years in the civil service. One of the things I became very aware of very quickly was that data protection was – is – a very complicated subject. It was only after attending a workshop with senior counsel from Pinsent Masons did I finally get my head around the basics of how it worked.
However, it’s been over a decade since the last data protection act was enacted. Since then, the phenomenon that we know as the internet – and through it, social media, have exploded into the public sphere. This blog post isn’t going to go into the complex and detailed arguments of interpreting data protection guidance; this post is about the more practical side of data protection and the right to be forgotten. With good reason.
We are now entering a time where school leavers will be moving into the workforce (youth unemployment issues aside) where internet access and social media are the norms. How these young people have used the internet in the past will have been logged and documented across a huge number of websites. A survey in 2008 covered the issue of employers checking social media statuses of applicants. It’s also not just what people put on the mainstream social networking sites. What about message boards?
It doesn’t take long to find newspaper articles of employees misbehaviour snapped on social media websites. In terms of the colourful pasts of politicians, it’s generally part and parcel of going into politics – whether you deal with it as Louise Mensch did earlier this year by turning the tables on her accuser, or as David Cameron did regarding his Bullingdon days.
But it’s not just about what we do, it’s about what we say – especially online. Think about it this way. Imagine every conversation you had ever had in a social environment – e.g. the pub or on a night out – had been recorded, transcribed and uploaded to the internet. With so many people being regular users of various different types of social media, there’s a newspaper headline for all of us – whether it’s with what we did or what we said. A number of people I have spoken to who have said they would otherwise love to go into politics have said that they are not even going to consider it because they feel that they have both too many ‘skeletons’ in their closets and/or have such a big digital footprint that make up a goldmine of ammunition to be used against them.
What is the solution?
I have no idea on this one. The big tension is wanting/needing to maintain and retrieve the wealth of information for historians of the future amongst a myriad of other reasons, vs the detrimental impact that our huge digital footprints (that have in part been formed during our formative years) have on affecting what we choose to do in the future. Should message boards and social networks have some sort of ‘expiry date’ on comments – where they are automatically deleted? Should they be archived and locked away as with the official censuses? How would you enforce these in a phenomenon that is global? (i.e. Who would write and enforce the rules?)
What is clear is that, as with a growing number of other issues, this one transcends single national governments.