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Calif. Enacts Law to Help Kids Salvage Online Reputations

We frequently hear tech-savvy educators talk about the importance of helping students become more aware of their "digital footprint," that searchable permanent record they are leaving when they post things to the Web. Now lawmakers in California have added a new wrinkle to this issue.

Earlier this week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation designed to give teenagers a little more control over their online identities. The law requires Internet firms, effective in 2015, to remove online material posted by a minor when he or she so requests. 

In theory, that means kids in California can get a potentially job- or college admissions-saving do-over. "Kids so often self-reveal before they self-reflect," James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, told the San Francisco Chronicle about the rationale for the law. "Mistakes can stay with teens for life, and their digital footprint can follow them wherever they go."

But there are some important exceptions in the new law, or what critics are more bluntly calling "holes." Most notably, the erasure requirement will not apply when the offending material is posted to the Web by someone other than the minor making the removal request. So a kid can still be out of luck if, say, a friend of his—or, worse, someone who doesn't particularly like him—posts an embarrassing picture of him at a party.

Nor does the law cover adults who may want to turn back the clock and remove something they posted when they were minors. (Sorry.)

Meanwhile, tech blogger Ashley Feinberg cautions that, under the law, "Though the post will, theoretically, be deleted from the page, there are no stipulations requiring deletion of the actual data on the servers." She also notes that once the regrettable content is posted, it may not be long before there are iterations of it (in the form of screenshots and reposts, for example) that may be out of the hosting company's—and the law's—control.

So it's probably best, even in California, to keep teaching teens about the relative stickiness of what they post on the Web. In fact, this new erasure law (with all its nuances) might offer a unique way in to exploring the thorniness of the issue with kids.

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