Middle age hit me this week as I listened to a radio report about iRights, a campaign “to make the digital world a more transparent and empowering place for children and young people (under 18) by delivering a universal framework of digital rights, in order that young people are able to access digital technologies creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly.” Young people, we are told, need help to delete information they put online that may later jeopardize their opportunities in life. And yes, my first reaction was: they should stop putting sensitive information online in the first place. Making it easier to mop up afterwards will only exacerbate the problem. Prevention is better than cure. #grumpyoldwoman
It then occurred to me that similar arguments are made against the morning-after pill, and a quick search for any evidence one way or another on that debate surfaced commentators from whom I quickly wanted to distance myself. This made me think again about iRights. It’s about the freedom to let your hair down and not live in fear of the consequences. It’s focused on young people, but it has resonance for all of us; even those of us who grew up in an essentially or entirely pre-digital world are not exempt from this issue. Thanks to scanners, and friends with different boundaries and perspectives, it’s easy to be embarrassed by old pictures that suddenly show up in your Facebook or Google+ stream.
I’m digitally literate enough to know how to silo my contacts and configure privacy settings to ensure that there is a Chinese wall between my personal and professional lives. But there’s a lot packed into that sentence that has come from experience, from growing up as a digital pioneer and learning from my mistakes as I went along. Young people emerge today into a much more evolved digital environment, and must get up to speed quickly; digital literacy, like any other kind of literacy, will be acquired more quickly by some than others. It’s only fair to allow people to review and redress poor decisions made during the “learning” phase, by fighting for systems that will make it easier to comprehensively remove evidence of immature or poor behavior or decision-making.
The campaign also touches on the challenges of information about you that is not controlled by you. Again, it is experience that has made me a bit more pedantic and controlling about (for example) my interactions with journalists – everyone knows someone who’s had words put into their mouth by a journalist struggling to fill space or meet a deadline, and we all probably see pictures of ourselves online that we wish were not what new industry contacts would find when looking us up in Google Images. Snarking at young people that they should be more careful what they say or give to whom is to gloss over our own history of youthful laissez-faire. Again, it’s only fair to ensure that when they realize the consequences, they have some ability to take back control of their online reputation.
Perhaps that’s why the issue caught my attention: although presented as an issue of child rights and online safety, this is as much as anything else an issue of online reputation. The ability to tell our own story, to shape the words and pictures that influence others’ perceptions of us, is key at both the personal and professional level. The issues involved are as pertinent for we middle-aged eye-rollers as for these pesky, indiscreet kids, and iRights is about providing a clear explanation of those issues (another cause close to my heart) as well as working towards solutions. Hence, I’ve taken a closer look at the iRights initiative and would ask you to do so too. Perhaps the internet can forget, even if elephants can’t.