Internet As Your Permanent Record

If it's online, it's forever.

In television portrayals of school, teachers always threatened to put some misconduct on a student’s “permanent record.”  As Jeffrey Rosen points out in a NYT essay titled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” that permanent record is now a reality.

With Web sites like LOL Facebook Moments, which collects and shares embarrassing personal revelations from Facebook users, ill-advised photos and online chatter are coming back to haunt people months or years after the fact. Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

According to a recent survey by Microsoft, 75 percent of U.S. recruiters and human-resource professionals report that their companies require them to do online research about candidates, and many use a range of sites when scrutinizing applicants — including search engines, social-networking sites, photo- and video-sharing sites, personal Web sites and blogs, Twitter and online-gaming sites. Seventy percent of U.S. recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of information found online, like photos and discussion-board conversations and membership in controversial groups.

Technological advances, of course, have often presented new threats to privacy. In 1890, in perhaps the most famous article on privacy ever written, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis complained that because of new technology — like the Kodak camera and the tabloid press — “gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious but has become a trade.” But the mild society gossip of the Gilded Age pales before the volume of revelations contained in the photos, video and chatter on social-media sites and elsewhere across the Internet. Facebook, which surpassed MySpace in 2008 as the largest social-networking site, now has nearly 500 million members, or 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Facebook users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be acquiring — and permanently storing — the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.


In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites Stacy Snyder’s case as a reminder of the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, Mayer-Schönberger notes, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

I tend to think that the upshot of all this is that we’ll define deviancy down and simply get used to the fact that responsible 30-somethings were once drunken idiots.  Further, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for 20-somethings who post drunken pirate photos of themselves on Facebook, much less young media professionals who Tweet dumb things or email them to 400 of their closest friends.

What’s much more insidious, though, is the ability of third parties to post private information about people — edited to put them in the worst possible light — into the public sphere in a permanent fashion.    As has been well documented, most people remember the initial lie, regardless of how well publicized and documented the correction.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    I note that the author, “Jeffrey Rosen” has a reasonably uncommon name. That makes a bigger difference in the google age than these sorts of articles suggest. If you try to keep a low profile, and have a reasonably common name, you’ll be lost in the chaff (the petabytes).

    Of course, choosing some separate public and private personnas works as well.

  2. Dantheman says:

    That is why I never use my real name, nor comment on a site which requires registration or a correct e-mail address. While the chances of something coming back to bite me are small, I’d rather have no chance at all.

  3. J.W. Hamner says:

    Over the last few years I’ve become a big believer in treating everything I put on the web as something that could come back to haunt me… by simply not assuming a psuedonym or “friends only” social networks have any reasonable chance of protecting my privacy. The only way to ensure such privacy is to not put anything on the internet. Possibly this could make me more vulnerable to repercussions, since a simple search on my name could lead to a boss finding something I said that they found objectionable… but at least I’m going into that with my eyes wide open, and not presuming a security that doesn’t really exist.

    While I expect it’s true that deviancy will be defined down to some extent, I think it’s more likely that kids growing up today won’t think of their RL (real life) identities and online ones as separate entities. This freaks privacy advocates out, but I can’t see anyway around its inevitability.

  4. john personna says:

    Well J.W., we should treat classes of seekers separately:

    1) casual, including friends and business contacts
    2) stalkers
    3) government
    4) Google

    Those are ordered roughly in their “productivity of search.” A pseudonym only blocks class 1. That is, normal people with normal time commitments. A stalker could probably tease out more, based on public sources of information, but I think we can rely on most people not really doing that. Government and Google have huge data sets, and much better cross-references. If they invested the time in it, I’m sure they could do probability matches based on traffic coming from an IP. At that point names don’t matter.

  5. just me says:

    Personally i wouldn’t mind giving some slack to some things that happen in the teen/college/young adult years. I am not sure a complaint of boredom or a drunken party post from college equals a person being unsuitable for their job. Shoot I love my job but there are moments of extreme boredom for me.

    It is sort of like when Bill Clinton felt the need to lie about trying pot but not actually inhaling (because let’s face it, does anyone believe the “I didn’t inhale” line?). Honestly trying pot, or even doing it a few times in college does not make a person a drug addict and I am hard pressed to believe that the vast majority of people having tried something in their youth.

    I think there are some things that would and should definitely matter-for instance calling in sick but then posting all about the wonderful day at the beach, or posting confidential information from work and similar stuff. But posting a few pictures from a party where some people are holding legal alcoholic beverages shouldn’t make a person at risk of losing their job.

  6. J.W. Hamner says:


    I agree that someone really digging in to find who the real person is behind a pseudonym is a pretty remote possibility… and probably only something a stalker would do… but I think most people who use a pseudonym on some sort of online community release much more personal information than they think they do. They often talk about their family, jobs, hobbies, and where they live… and it doesn’t really take l33t hxx0r skills to put that information together. Simply assuming that my family, friends, or boss could read or see anything I put online just seems a safer strategy to me.

  7. Herb says:

    I was thinking about this the other day…musing on the youth of the internet. Mostly I was thinking about how easy it is to find archives from 2006….but 1996 is a bit more difficult. (If you think about it, almost everything on the internet only dates back 10-15 years.)

    10 years of archives might seem like a permanent record, but 100 years from now….are we going to still have servers storing all this data? For what purpose? I suspect most of it will be flushed eventually…perhaps yearly, perhaps every couple of years. Not because we need the space…

    But because most of the data is useless, and it’s a waste of time and resources to sort through it.

  8. john personna says:

    There is the Internet Archive. Their goal is a permanent record, though they work in an odd legal zone. I think they tend to record things, working deals with copyright owners when they can, and honoring take-down requests when they get them.

  9. john personna says:

    I just got a mail from ATT announcing a new store in Three Rivers, MI … so they at least don’t know where I am. 😉

    Probably a bug. I remember when a guy in our office accidentally e-mailed everyone in a California city(*), congratulating them on their purchase of their new Honda.

    * – ok, everyone in that city in our db

  10. Brett says:

    They often talk about their family, jobs, hobbies, and where they live… and it doesn’t really take l33t hxx0r skills to put that information together.

    It’s all in the specifics. For example, I’ve mentioned in a number of areas that I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and so forth. That might help narrow it down . . . . but not by much.

    And the key with pseudonyms is that they make it difficult for a potential employer or the like to even start finding this stuff. How are they going to know that “XGoogleFlash” is you? It won’t show up under a google search on your name, for example.