Here is an interesting tidbit. Concerned about privacy, a 24 year-old Austrian law student last year requested his own Facebook file and what he got back was 1,222 pages long. (Guess what - we can't do that in the US or Canada -only in Europe with its stricter privacy laws, since Facebook's European office is located in Ireland.) His file contained old wall posts he had deleted, old messages that discussed a depressed friend's state of mind, and even information about his physical whereabouts that he didn't enter himself. It rattled him and his discomfort is very reflective of the mood in Europe these days about the ways in which Internet companies like Facebook and Google treat personal information.
Of course here in the US, we are still in denial about much of this. Recently the FTC criticized many children's apps, sold at the Google and Apple online stores, for the amount of information they collect about youngest users. While surveys tell us that teens are very conscious of what putting information up online might mean, they are still asking each other to exchange passwords as a sign of affection, checking their Facebook pages as much out of fear as pleasure, and being monitored by the apps they download. Adults, including myself, have been bitten by the latest craze of "social media curation," on mega-popular sites like Pinterest, where users share pictures related to their niche interests. But of course all this organizing and sharing just opens more windows into our lives as well.
The truth is that data about our lives and wants (remember those familiar ads that pop up in the most unexpected places when you are online) is being collected, scrutinized and retained at a breakneck rate and we all know very little about how long these companies keep it or how they use it. In the United States alone, companies spend up to $2 billion a year to collect this valuable information, according to a recent report from Forrester Research. Some people are asking questions, though. The Electronic Privacy Information Center went to court recently to block Google from making a policy change on March 1 that could lead to the search giant assembling richer behavior profiles of people who use more than one of its popular online services.
Back in Europe, the law student's experience has set off stronger requests for privacy laws. And here is another interesting factoid. Every European country has a privacy law, as do Canada, Australia and many Latin American countries. The United States remains a holdout: We have separate laws that protect our health records and financial information, and even one that keeps private what movies we rent. But there is no law that spells out who owns and can control and use our online data.
Even though technology is changing and morphing every day, and privacy, as it was thought of in the past, may be dead, that doesn't mean we shouldn't protect ourselves. We are living more and more in a world, with a burgeoning population all competing for the same colleges, jobs, and the like, where you increasingly only get one chance to make an impression before being categorized, marginalized, or worse. As second chances fall away because every nuance of one's life is archived online to be brought to light at someone else's discretion, there are going to be less and less opportunities for young people to overcome their past, become a "new person," or just plain grow as a person. This is going to be especially true if everything they ever posted online trails along behind them. It is a sobering thought that today's young people may never be able to overcome a youthful indiscretion, an offhand comment, or a questionable picture posted online. Let's not let those second chances fade away.