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Is Facebook Your “Permanent Record?”

When Dawn and Bart Beye’s 15-year-old daughter began showing signs of an eating disorder, they immediately took action. The Beyes enrolled the girl in a treatment program they thought was covered by insurance. Three weeks later, their insurance provider, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, informed the couple they would no longer pay for the child’s treatment. Horizon claimed the disorder is not biologically-based, but emotionally-based, and therefore, not their responsibility to cover. The Beyes sued. And in what could have been a dangerous precedent-setting lawsuit, Horizon subpoenaed the daughter’s online writings from MySpace and Facebook to prove it.

If It’s on Super Wall, It May As Well Be Public Record

In December of 2007, a judge, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patty Shwartz, ordered the plaintiffs in two cases (Beye v. Horizon, 06-Civ.-5337 & Foley v. Horizon, 06-Civ.-6219 were consolidated for discovery) to turn over their children’s online emails, diaries, and other writings to the court. They had until January 15th to comply. The plaintiffs fought the order, saying the online writings were therapy tools and not meant to be shown to others. However, Shwartz was not swayed.

Horizon believed that the children’s writings on their social networking sites and emails could show that their eating disorders are wrapped up in emotional causes, and therefore not the insurer’s responsibility (since N.J. law says only biological mental illness must be covered).

On Jan. 24th, Horizon claimed that the Jan. 15th set by Shwartz come and gone with no disclosure on the plaintiffs’ parts, even though Beye’s parents had turned over the child’s Yahoo emails. But the Foleys had yet to disclose their daughter’s emails.

Horizon insisted the plaintiffs turn over not only the children’s emails, but also the corresponding emails and the email accounts of the girls’ families. They also requested a mirror-image copy of the hard drive for each computer in the plaintiffs’ family.

When it came to disclosing the writings on both Facebook and MySpace, David Mazie, the Beye’s lawyer, stated that they have produced what documents they can and they have no Facebook or MySpace pages to turn over. The Foley’s lawyer, Bruce Nagel, says “he believes his clients have no Facebook or MySpace pages.”

However, anyone who knows a 15-year-old girl, knows that that these statements were likely false, and the lawyers were just trying to buy some time.

As it turned out, Horizon moved to dismiss Beye and Foley cases on the ground that the court should abstain from ruling due to pending state legislation would resolve the issue for good. While the new legislation may provide respite in these particular cases, those who are interested in internet privacy laws and protection are now feeling a knot in their stomach over what may have been.

What You Say Online is Not Private

The internet is not like a diary, although many people use online journals, blogs, and social networking sites to share their innermost thoughts, feelings, and secrets with the world. With a hardbound diary, you only had to be afraid of your little brother finding it under your mattress; but with the web, the words you write are etched in stone for the entire world to read. And even when you remove your accounts and disable your profiles, you may not really be gone. With Google’s caching, the

Way Back Machine

, and even the websites themselves, your data is retained for a lot longer than you may have realized.

Take for example, the U.K. user who realized that he was unable to fully delete his Facebook profile. It seems users wishing to remove their Facebook profiles are only given the option to deactivate their accounts. These accounts become inaccessible, but still remain in Facebook’s database. To really wipe out all information, Facebook advises users log in and manually remove all data from their profile before deactivating their account. This greatly concerned Dave Evans, the senior data protection practice manager at the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office:

“One of the things that we’re concerned about is that if the onus is entirely on the individual to delete their own data,”

he told BBC Radio 4.

“An individual who has deactivated their account might not find themselves motivated enough to delete information that’s about them, maybe on their wall or other people’s site.”

Only months earlier, the ICO had been warning social networker of possibly jeopardizing future careers by posting explicit photos or pictures of them “partying.”

So What’s a Social Networker To Do?

Reputation management companies have stepped in to fill the void in defending users’ online reputations. A site like


, for example, will search all information about you (or your child) on the internet, provide you with a report, and then destroy whatever information you deem inappropriate or slanderous. Through non-legal means, the company works with the site owners where your data resides to get it removed. Claiming a thorough process that can remove data from almost anywhere online, ReputationDefender, and those like it, are poised to be the next major companies of the Internet Age. As the GenY and the YouTube Generation enters the workforce, a place still dominated by many Baby Boomers and others who grew up

sans internet

, the potential damage those MySpace photos could cause will then become much greater.

In the end, the best you can do is think carefully before you post photos, before you blog, and even before you send an email because

the internet is more of a permanent record than anything your teachers ever threatened you with back in school.

In the digital age we must all be aware that the illusion of privacy is just that:

an illusion

. And you may never know went it could come back to haunt you.

(Sources: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/connected/main.jhtml?xml=/connected/2008/01/21/dlface121.xml and http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1201779829458)

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