Digital Bankruptcy: A Second Chance at Life Online

They say an Internet post is forever. But does it have to be?


If you can keep it forever, should you? If you watch “Hoarding: Buried Alive” on cable, you’ll likely answer with a firm “no.” But that eternal question applies to non-tangible objects, too. If you declare bankruptcy, it drops off your credit report after seven years. The IRS, aside for certain cases, won’t ask for your tax records past seven years. And the legal system has statutes of limitations for most crimes — except one: murder.

So why not the Internet?

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Everything, especially data, outlives its practical usefulness — but it isn’t purged. And that’s giving a lot of people headaches. How do you live in a world where the Internet remembers everything you do? The Web records every photo upload, every status you update, every tweet you post — it never forgets.

If you’re not worried about your online behavior, you should be. More information about you is out there than you think. But what if all that data faded away naturally? What if there was an expiration date on your data? What if there were legal remedies like a digital bankruptcy?

Data is piling up at an exponential rate. In just two years, we’ve created 90 percent for the world’s data, according to IBM. That’s due, in no small part, to inexpensive storage. These days, the storage cost of a movie is about a dime, but prices aren’t continuing to drop. And that’s forcing computer scientists look elsewhere for savings, like coding techniques that condense the ever-growing streams of data into smaller storage bits.

Meanwhile, legal and privacy experts are pushing for a different solution to help manage that avalanche of data.

One solution is so simple that you don’t even think about it — expiration dates. Is that carton of milk spoiled? No need to sniff for sour signs — just look at the package. That same theory can be applied to digital goods. Everything expires. According to Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, a professor at Oxford’s Internet Institute and leading expert on network economy, the key is to have a “self-destruct” button. How? By giving you the power to adjust your settings from the beginning.

Imagine programming photos, blog posts and status updates to automatically delete after some time. If you change your mind, you can extend the date or make it permanent or change it back. The majority of data would just cycle out at a predetermined time — every 30 days, each year, whatever you decide. But that’s a big departure from the current setting, which is an eternity in the cloud.

After all, do you really need your high school devotion to Justin Timberlake memorialized on Facebook for your boss to come across?

Expiration dates aren’t just an idea. Researchers at the University of Washington are developing a technology, called Vanish, that makes data “self-destruct” after a specified timeframe. It works by encrypting Facebook, Gmail and search data, and then “shattering” the encryption key. Your computer can put the pieces back together, but as time passes, these pieces erode until reading them is no longer possible. The goal is to make data unreadable without having to trust a third-party to remove it for you.

Like living organisms, it gradually decays and then dies.

If you need proof that expiring data is catching on, look no further than the success of Snapchat, a texting app with a twist: messages you send disappear within 10 seconds. Your friend looks at the picture, reads the note and then — poof, it’s gone. Critics, at first, saw it as a novelty, but it’s caught on with teens and tweens who share and chat off the record.

In the U.S., Snapchat was the second-most popular free photo and video app for the iPhone, just behind YouTube and ahead of Instagram. The service handles more than 50 million “snaps” each day, and the exploding popularity is underscoring the nervousness we have over the impact data can have in our broader lives.

The courtroom, more so than other field, understands the importance of expiring data, and legal scholars are considering laws to help you correct or escape from a damaged online reputation — either built by your own past mistakes or from other people’s comments. Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet law at Harvard, told the New York Times the solution is an idea he calls “reputation bankruptcy.” Simply put, like bankruptcy, you get a chance to wipe your reputation clean and start over.

“Like personal financial bankruptcy, or the way in which a state often seals a juvenile criminal record and gives a child a ‘fresh start’ as an adult, we ought to consider how to implement the idea of a second or third chance into our digital spaces,” he told the New York Times, adding that you should be able to deemphasize — if not entirely delete — older personal information like political preferences, activities, youthful likes and dislikes.

“If someone wants to declare reputation bankruptcy, we might want it to mean throwing out the good along with the bad,” he wrote on his Harvard Law blog. “The blank spot in one’s history indicates a bankruptcy has been declared — this would be the price one pays for eliminating unwanted details.”

Ultimately, most people don’t just want greater access to privacy; they want real control over their online life. But the difficult truth is, you can’t craft your reputation — you build it with actions and perceptions from others. Each interaction you take in the digital world costs you a bit of privacy, and that’s the problem. You can reform and change, but your online reputation doesn’t. It stays there, frozen in time, easily misinterpreted or unchanged by the natural evolution that governs human lives.

At first glance, the idea of expiration dates or digital bankruptcy seems outlandish, but a growing number are starting to see the advantage of an impermanent digital world — and the ramifications will humanize the Internet, for better or worse.


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