The Web Never Forgets. Should It?


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becomes a permanent record, one where all data points can be equal and all individuals can be identified.

All this data combination also has the effect of increasing the level of precision in identifying individuals. Each additional dataset makes it easier to select individual characteristics to be targeted (and therefore the value of the dataset), as well as making it easier to de-identify and pull individuals back out of “anonymous” data. Although you might not be identifiable in real life based on just your hair color, start adding information to that pile—height, parents’ names, favorite movies—and identifying you becomes easier and easier. The same rules apply to the virtual you: you might not be identifiable through one Google search or a few Gchat conversations, but the sum of all your activities on Google’s services, these separate pieces, rapidly narrows it down to you.

And it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Google’s changes are a visible result of the enormous pressure to monetize user data that most online consumer and content companies face. The fundamental economic structure of most Web companies will continue to lead to more changes like Google’s as they seek to maximize the value of the user data they already have and are collecting. To consumers, these policy changes should be treated like a canary in a coal mine (even though it’s an 800-pound canary).

So what can be done differently? In an ideal world consumers could limit the use of data to pre-approved users. This may not be feasible, as companies would have to spell out all the uses in advance; they would be limited in their experiments and innovation, and users would probably be faced with an even greater barrage of end-user license agreements in their online interactions.

A more practical solution would be to give data an expiration date, except for minimum datasets to do things like validate transactions. It’s not clear that there’s a need to save all accessible information on every user just because it’s possible. There are credible arguments that humans must forget certain amounts and types of information in order to grow, mature, and live happy lives. Maybe we need to do the same thing to our online society.

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Andrew Sudbury is founder and chief technology officer of Abine, an online privacy company. Follow @

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