Google's Schmidt: what we need is an internet "Delete" button

Filed Under: Featured, Google, Organisations, Privacy

Delete button. Image from ShutterstockThere are two things we humans could do to wipe clean our internet data tracks.

To wit:

  1. Get everybody to legally change their names at the age of 18, or
  2. Create an internet "Delete" button.

Those are the wouldn't-it-be-nice proposals thrown out by Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and current executive chairman.

His suggestion (facetiously said with a smile) regarding data collection when it concerns young people:

"I propose that at the age of 18, you should, just as a policy, change your name... Then you can say, 'That really wasn't me; I really didn't do that!'"

Schmidt shared his thoughts on Google's evolving role in personal privacy at New York University's Stern Business School on Sunday.

Fast Company's Austin Carr wrote up what he called the "grilling" Schmidt received from economist Nouriel Roubini.

Regarding changing our names when we hit 18, Schmidt compared it with the morality that informs the erasure of criminal records for juvenile offenders:

"In America, there is a sense of fairness, culturally true for all of us... if you have a teenage boy or girl who makes a mistake - does some sort of crime, goes to juvenile hall, is released - in our system, they can apply and have that expunged from their record. They can legally state that they were never convicted of anything. That seems like a reasonable thing... Today, that's not possible because of the internet... [and] that seems to violate our innate sense of fairness."

As far as the master Delete button goes, Schmidt says now's the time to start discussing it:

"This lack of a delete button on the internet is in fact a significant issue... There are times when erasure [of data] is the right thing... and there are times when it is inappropriate. How do we decide? We have to have that debate now."

Perhaps we should, if such a thing as an internet "Delete" button were either technically feasible or in fact desirable.

Google spyIn the meantime, Google and its ilk are amassing treasure troves of personal user data about us as they track, well, just about everything, and as Google gets sued for a lot of those tracking practices.

If you'd like to see the multifaceted ways in which Google tracks us, plans to track us, and some of the legal ramifications it's faced or is facing over such energetic tracking, you can check out Google's privacy rap sheet here [PDF].

A few examples:

  • In March, 38 US states imposed a $7 million fine on Google as punishment for Google's grab of emails, text messages, browsing histories and passwords from unsecured wireless networks as its StreetView cars patrolled and photographed neighborhoods worldwide.
  • No google glass

  • Google Glass: the ultimate creepy stalker toy. With a touch to the lens-less frames, the tiny computer attached to the right earpiece will take photos or video of whatever or whomever the wearer's looking at and broadcast it to millions. Goodbye, privacy! Hello, bans on people wearing newfangled computer glasses!

That's what's happening now.

When Roubini asked Schmidt what privacy would look like in 10 or 20 years, when by-then-old-fashioned smartphones are replaced by wearable gadgets such as Google Glass or perhaps even embedded technology in our eyes or skin, Schmidt emphasized to the audience that the discussion was hypothetical and that Google "is not tracking you" or "doing all these things":

"Does everyone get that we're not doing this? He's talking about a different company or set of companies."

Nor will it, Schmidt says, given that such a high degree of tracking would "upset" people, that "governments won't allow it," and that it would be "bad business":

"... ultimately, in a competitive market, companies want the consumers to be happy. So it's true tracking in this context... you're taking a much broader view of the word ['tracking'] than any I would use. A situation where you go to people and say, 'Oh, here's our phone, and we're going to track you to death,' people are not going to buy that phone. It's just a bad business model."

Oh, really? A bad business model?

As Fast Company's Carr points out, tracking is actually a damn fine business model. Some 30% of Facebook's ad revenue last quarter came from mobile advertising, for example.

Regarding governments not allowing extensive tracking, goodness gracious, what a relief.

I guess the National Security Agency's ginormous spy center isn't for tracking citizens, per se.

It's just for recording every conversation, email and text exchange it scoops up in its electronic net.

Such a relief, she said as she searched for the "sarcasm" HTML code.


Image of delete button courtesy of Shutterstock.

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6 Responses to Google's Schmidt: what we need is an internet "Delete" button

  1. Sean · 470 days ago

    I don't know, a "delete" button doesn't even seem technologically feasible to me - to my experience, trying to erase something from history just forces it further into a spotlight. Besides, how would something like that be enforced? I can't just "tell" Google to throw out all of the information it has on me, any more than I can force a "friend" to take down an embarrassing photo of me.

  2. Mati · 469 days ago

    A "Delete" button seems wrong to me.. Who would decide what to be erased and what not?? The power of the Internet is that everyone can upload something for others to see and share.. I believe that if a button like this will ever be envented, the information on the Internet won't be objective

  3. Yeah, and I want an "unring" function on my bell.
    I also would like to be able to travel back in time and undo the things that I did wrong.
    I mean, we all make mistakes, after all we are all only human.
    We can dream about these things, but only in a fantasy world can they come true.

  4. In 10 or 20 years the internet won't be the same creature. It will be comprised of individuals sharing data via plug servers on a mesh network where true anonymity will make such discussion moot.

  5. Stacie · 468 days ago

    I think the mere suggestion of his about changing your name at 18 and then lie about what you may have done in the past is wrong. It's no wonder so many ppl don't want to take responsibility for what they do when you have ideas like that thrown around that some ppl will latch onto. If kids are taught to take responsibility and that actions have consequences, maybe some of them will grow up to morally responsible and they won't have to lie about their pasts because perhaps they won't do some of the crap they would otherwise.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.