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The Internet Never Forgets

October 24th, 2008

The other day, I stumbled upon a social network site I was not familiar with, hosting a funny video I wanted to watch. After watching the video I clicked through on the “find contacts” link and without having to create an account or login I was able to enter by email address and password. A few seconds later the site sucked up my address book and presented me with a list of about 10 people I know (or may know as these online email sites seem to think anyone in the To, From or CC list is somehow someone I want to consider a contact!) who were registered on the site. Most of the people were casual acquaintances and not people I would add to my list of friends on any social network. But… there were two people I do keep in touch with. Where they really using this site? Should I sign up?

Well, in a word; ‘no’. I looked at the profile/home page of both people but they were pretty barren. One had and image and the other had an image and two small items — from 2004!

Which brings us to the subject of this post: The internet never forgets. Well, of course it does forget; somewhere in the deep dark back alleys of the internet — where the light of Google don’t shine — unloved pages are born and die. But most people will never know that world those lonely pages will pass into oblivion without anyone shedding a tear or laughing about ‘what once was.’ But while these uncharted regions of the internet come and go unnoticed the vast majority of pages will be sucked into the black hole that is the Google database — and who knows how many other such databases; Yahoo, Microsoft… the CIA? NSA? I think Microsoft might be the scariest of those, big brother doesn’t need your drunken after party photos: they have your phone tapped. These pages will never vanish.

Those drunken after party photos will be of interest to someone… someone important to you:

“According to a survey conducted by business social networking site Viadeo, one-fifth of hiring managers have used the Internet to find personal information about potential job candidates, and a quarter of those have rejected candidates based on what they found.”

Jacqui Cheng, from “Job Candidates Gone Wild: be careful what you post online” published on Ars Technica [arstechnica.com].

My friends didn’t do anything so embarrassing as all that, their photos were funny in an “oh-my-god, why did I do my hair like that,” way but not embarrassing. They were quite amused when I sent them a link to the site.

My own virtual persona’s trail is, I think, free of such amusements, or at least anything worse. I’m lucky enough not to have done anything too stupid in the early days of the internet, and for some time I have lived my virtual life by words-of-wisdom from one of my former bosses;

“Never commit anything to writing that you would not want read back to you in court.”

This pearl of wisdom was prompted by my sending an appropriately rude email to a moron. Not that my boss disagreed with anything I said but because the moron in question worked for our company and I was pointing out in a very non-diplomatic way that he was willfully violating a contract.

Not too long after this incident I got on someones bad side by forwarding a portion of an IM conversation to someone else. The IM conversation quoted included an opinion about a product or project (I don’t remember) that apparently the author was not willing to share with others, but I didn’t know that until the someone mentioned the quote in question back to the author. He was not happy, apparently there was much politics between this guy and the person in charge of the disparaged product or project. So the same lesson is applicable here; don’t put it in writing if you don’t want to have to explain it later.

So, remember: The internet never forgets or more generically; never commit anything to writing you would not want read back to you in court.

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