Coming To Grips With An Internet That Never Forgets

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) discusses the implications of an Internet that never forgets.  I note that the most significant Internet effect during the current campaign has not been any particular online video, website or Facebook group.  Instead, it has been the resignation of eight local candidates based on embarrassing or controversial information unearthed online. Many observers have blamed the revelations on inadequate vetting processes, yet the reality is that these incidents shine the spotlight on an important but rarely discussed aspect of the Internet. Old blog postings, chat room discussions, or difficult-to-explain videos are captured by search engine databases and lie dormant until an intrepid searcher comes across it.  In other words, the Internet never forgets.
The effect of a technology that never forgets marks a dramatic change in the way that we deal with the past.  Most people have older embarrassing stories or incidents that they would prefer to forget.  Before the emergence of the Internet and cheap data storage, they had little reason to fear that these might come to light. Today's digital generation will have a much different relationship with their past.  In an always-on environment, videos, photographs, blog postings, and discussion room comments live forever online.  There are certainly great advantages to creating large, personal archives that are immediately accessible with sophisticated search technologies.  However, as the now former election candidates recently learned, there is also great potential for negative consequences.

Candidates for public office may be fair game given the right of voters to fully vet their elected representatives.  But the Internet that never forgets does not stop with politicians. The born digital generation enthusiastically posts everything from party photos to their thoughts on the issues of the day.  This content has a "Hotel California" quality to it – you can post it anytime you like, but it never leaves. The postings may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but there is a concern that future employers or academic admissions officers will adopt a different perspective.  

Search engines such as Google are frequently the first place people turn to when they want to learn more about a potential applicant or interviewee.  More sophisticated tools for uncovering blog postings or Facebook entries are now readily available, providing the potential to develop detailed online profiles that may or may not reflect the real person.

Given that people will likely post more rather than less in the coming years, there is a need to reconsider how this online story is interpreted.  The conventional approach might be to take everything at face value, viewing the embarrassing content as reflecting a character fault in the person (for that reason, new services that seek to scrub online postings have begun to emerge).

Companies, schools, and other organizations should resist the temptation to judge based on a years-old blog posting or video, however.  If the cameras are always on, they are bound to catch something that people would prefer be kept private.  Similarly, if social interaction means posting content online, some regrettable comments are sure to follow.  The Internet may never forget, but sometimes we should be willing to.


  1. good waring
    This is an issue that concerns me. I have talked to Facebook/Internet friends who post risky items. Just like those tattoos you had done when you were 19, when you are 45 (or 85) they can look somewhat bizarre and come back to bite you!

  2. Yup
    I agree. Not so much for myself (I’m 41) but more for my kids. When I was a youngster, I spent a lot of time writing in journals. I still have them, and a lot of it is pretty lame stuff. But if the day comes that I want to get rid of that past, along with all the griping about girls that didn’t like me, things that bug me, and.. uhh… certain illegal things I’ve done, I can burn ’em. Kids these days live everything online, and, as you point out, it can never be taken to the burn barrel out back.

    My kids aren’t yet old enough to read or write, but when they are, I’ll be giving them several long, boring lectures about what NOT to put online.

    I will be curious to see how politics evolves, though. In thirty or forty years, every political candidate is going to have a lifetime of embarrassments, slip-ups and ramblings to contend with.

  3. “Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”
    – Mcluhan 1967

  4. George Geczy says:

    Gotta love a Marshall McLuhan quote
    Micheal, I think Mr McLuhan wrote your column 40 years ago 🙂

    While I agree with your points about the need for society to be more forgiving for postings from years gone by, I am also concerned about the corollary to your statement, which is that those people and organizations who become adept at scrubbing their internet past will be assumed to be ‘cleaner’ than those that do not. I already find it alarming and Orwellian that some news sites modify stories months or even years after the original posting, an attempt at re-writing history that was never possible with the paper archive and microfilm cabinet.