Myth #46: The Internet never forgets.
Myth: Everything that is written, uploaded or shared online will stay online forever. That one photo from your college party will compromise your chance to get the job. The Internet is a giant archive that holds truths and lies forever, with consequences for all our lives and memories.
Busted: Due to its more or less decentralized structure, the marginal costs of digital copies and help by millions and millions of users and local storage devices, many things linger much longer in the Internet, and in our memories. General and specialized search engines enable us to purposefully find a lot of information over a long time. Whole business areas have evolved that offer services like “online reputation management”.
The so-called Streisand effect is probably the most famous dilemma in this area: By actively trying to suppress a specific text, picture or video from the Internet one is attracting attention to the attempted content removal and, thus, actually making that very information even more well known. So yes, for any information that at any point in time had gone viral, it will be cumbersome to have this information erased from the Internet forever. But these cases are very special and – compared to the amount of information bits on the Internet – exceedingly rare.
For most content online the prevailing premise is that it will be gone sooner or later: All studies that analyzed the availability of a corpus of online resources showed that there is a high amount of so called “URL rot” or “link rot”. Reasons for an online resource to diminish or change are, inter alia, service or server cessation, removal of a second level domain (lately even of a top level domain), account deletion or suspension, content deletion or relocation, changed content, URL shortener decay, redirected links or embedded content decay.
Moreover, the users’ approach to self-disclosure and privacy in general has changed quite a bit in the last ten years. The myth already has resulted in more restricted profiles and accounts, for instance on social networks, making public access to unflattering photos from college parties much less common.
And then there is jurisprudence and regulation where anyone is being granted a “right to be forgotten” to have search engine results delisted that infringe their personality rights. (#45) The GDPR’s right to erasure confirms this approach by granting data subjects the possibility to make a claim aiming at the deletion of personal data on the side of the controller.
Both the decay of resources and the legal instruments to delete specific content on the Internet show that it is not the perennial global information archive many people think. In fact, ordinary content does not show the best pre-conditions for digital preservation at all.
Truth: Many files online show a short half-life period, and significant decay in services and URL rot can be observed. Regulations aiming at deleting information or delisting specific search results reinforce such phenomena. Usual online content is not suited for long-term archiving – and remembering.
Source: Andrew Neville, Is it a Human Right to be Forgotten? Conceptualizing the World View, Santa Clara J. Int’l L. 15 (2017) 157, https://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/scujil/vol15/iss2/2; Shawn Walker and Sheetal Agarwal, The missing link: a preliminary typology for understanding link decay in social media, IConference Proceedings 2016, http://hdl.handle.net/2142/89413.