On being forgotten

Tech startup Snapchat reportedly turned down a $3bn offer last week from Facebook. The service has 100s of millions of users, mostly teenagers, and the Internet is abuzz with the suggestion that more photos are shared on Snapchat than on its potential purchaser.

Snapchat’s photo sharing has a fascinating twist – once the recipient opens the photo they have but a few seconds to view it and then it disappears forever.  Saving is not possible, and no copy is kept by Snapchat.  Here is an extract from the Snapchat privacy policy:

Once all recipients have viewed a Snap, we automatically delete the Snap from our servers and the Snapchat mobile application is programmed to delete the Snap from the recipients’ devices. We cannot guarantee that deletion always occurs within a particular timeframe. We also cannot prevent others from making copies of your Snaps (e.g., by taking a screenshot). If we are able to detect that the recipient has captured a screenshot of a Snap that you send, we will attempt to notify you.

Valley observers ascribe Snapchat’s popularity to a mixture of kids looking for privacy, and to escape Facebook friend requests from their parents (OMG!).   But the fact is that, while courts and policy makers debate the vexed issue of the right to be forgotten, young people and the technology industry are already alighting on new product solutions.

So, what policy lessons can we draw from the Snapchat evidence?

Clearly there is demand for products that provide a forgettability, and a friend noted to me recently that Snapchat also adds fuel to the debate about whether ‘expiry dates’ can be attached to information.  But the market is moving faster than the legislator and companies are looking for ways to attract new users.

The general rule that regulation should seek to address ‘market failure’ therefore needs to prevail, and overly specific rules are more likely to harm innovation in the EU than truly protect users.

(Snapchat has also faced criticism that it provides a platform for sharing photos of a sexual nature or for the purpose of cyber-bullying.  Digital literacy is the solution here.)

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