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California law allows minors to remove embarrassing pics, posts

A new California law gives minors the right to ask Web sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter to remove or hide any content they wish, essentially allowing kids to “scrub” their digital history before they enter the adult world.

The law in question builds on existing state and fedeal legislation that requires Web site operators to publicly display a privacy policy, and to notify minors who are using the app, site or service that information is being collected about them and to allow thir parents to opt out. It will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, allowing the affected sites enough time to prepare.

However, the new law also would ban advertising certain products to minors, as well as third-party advertisers who are somehow notified by the site in question that the user is a minor. The products include alcohol, firearms, tobacco products, but also spray paint, etching cream, lottery tickets, permanent tattoos, and electronic cigarattes. (Facebook has already moved to eliminate controversial ads.)

Scrubbing your profile

The most interesting element of the new law, however, is the provision that a minor may opt “to remove or, if the operator prefers, to request and obtain removal of, content or information posted on the operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application by the user”.

The law requires the site operator or developer to provide clear instructions on how the minor may do this himself, or request the Web site or developer to do it for him. The law places no restrictions on what content may be removed, or how much; it also does not place penalties on a Web site operator or developer who does not do so in a timely manner.

Although any state could enact a similar law, California’s legislators have publicly placed themselves at the center of the online privacy debate. California laws like the Online Privacy Protection Act, require firms doing business in the state to clearly post a privacy policy. In the age of the Internet, however, that law could be said to apply to anyone like Delta Airlines—which the state sued for allegedly violating the law—to a California resident attempting to access a small commercial site in, say, Bulgaria.

The law appears to have no “grandfather clause,” or provision that an adult living in the state could retroactively cull embarassing photos from their past. Nor is Facebook required to erase that picture of you drunkenly making out with your ex; instead, the law only requires that it be totally hidden from view. Finally, if one of your friends posted that photo on his own account, you won’t be able to do anything about it, especially if someone else has cut and pasted it to a third-party site, like a blog. And if you somehow were paid for that photo, the Web site also doesn’t have to pull it, either.

facebook delete my account
Deleting your account is an existing, though drastic, option.

Twitter already allows you to delete tweets you don’t like. Facebook’s Graph Search is an easy way—too easy—to pore through Timelines for embarassing photos. (Here’s how to do it—and how to avoid it happening to you.) And while there’s always the option of erasing yourself from the Internet, most people probably want the freedom of publishing what they want, without the past coming back to haunt them.

The good news, however, is that Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yahoo all are headquartered in California, so the companies won’t have much wiggle room to avoid complying with it. Nevertheless, that still doesn’t mean that the law is a get-out-of-jail-free card for school admissions and job interviews. But if you’ve accidentally overdosed on cough syrup, wrapped yourself in tinsel, and recorded a video of yourself twerking, you may be able to save your dignity. Maybe.

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