I, Technology: Can you turn your back on the Web?

You’ve had enough. Facebook, Twitter, targeted ads, unsolicited email, the uneasy, nagging feeling that your computer is doing things beyond your control, talking to other systems without your knowledge, the automatic downloads, the quiet information exchanges – is that your password information crossing the ether, in clear text? Or your credit card number? Or your childrens’ personal details?

Perhaps it’s more than a feeling. An incident. Something happens out of the blue – a case of mistaken identity, your access has been blocked, you have received one of those, “We’re sorry to inform you, but you could have been among a minority of our customers who…” letters. Or perhaps you’ve had a minor epiphany, a genuine, joyous moment of truth when you realise real life has so much more to offer beyond the screen.

Whatever. You’ve made the decision – you just want to leave the Web. Maybe you’ll come back – you don’t know. But for now, you’d like to take your information and go. Just how viable is it, however? Can you really just pack up your virtual possessions and walk away? While this would never be a straightforward question given just how complex the Internet has become, it should at least have an answer.

Let’s give it a go. Simplistically, yes, there is nothing stopping you turning off your computer, unplugging the broadband from the wall and dropping any smart phones into a bucket of water. It might be wise to inform friends, family and work colleagues first – for example setting up an out-of-office email that says, “I am no longer here. If you want to find me, you’ll have to go outside and look.” Or posting a message on Facebook to the same effect.

There – that was easy – you’re done. Assuming that everyone you want to speak to is able to speak to you otherwise. Which means you probably don’t have a job, or indeed live in a place where others live, or have any friends at all. Perhaps its just you and your dog on a remote Scottish isle, in which case you are quids in.

Apart from the trace that is, the virtual vapour trails of data you will have left, snapshotted, sliced, diced and stored by every service provider you ever came into contact with. The trails are yours – the principle that personally identifiable data is protected, is enshrined into the UK Data Protection Act and many other national and international laws.

So, yes, you can in effect request the removal of such information. It’s simple. Just go to every Web site you have ever registered with and request that your information be removed. How hard can it be – you did keep a list of them all, didn’t you? It’s a good job you can trust all those big companies to respond to the request.

Ah. What was that? There could be complications. It seems that some companies haven’t been playing ball – Facebook, Microsoft and even do-no-evil Google have all been called out called out as needing to comply with the a proposed right – not a ‘possibility’ – of citizens to say whether their personal information can be stored. And they don’t like it.

Giving both legislators and online providers the benefit of the doubt, let’s say you can erase the online identities you have created across all such companies. As well as e-commerce suppliers, forums, email list aggregators and so on (at least for the latter you can terminate your email accounts, leaving any messages sent to the now-defunct addresses to be mere ghosts in the global machine, passing across the network with no hope of reaching their destination).

Are you done? If only. You go to a party. Someone – a child, say – takes your photo and uploads it to their poorly configured, insecure Facebook account. Somebody else tweets your name; another photo is uploaded, with a timestamp and a GPS location this time. Before you know it, as far as the great data crunchers in the sky are concerned, you might as well be standing in Trafalgar Square with a giant name badge and a megaphone.

Meanwhile, even if you were satisfied with your new status as social pariah (Who was it that said, “Saying ‘I’m not on Facebook’ is the new ‘I don’t own a television’?) you might find it increasingly difficult to get to the services you need. Cash-strapped governments see online services as a money-saver: while the majority of us simply hope they are right, others may feel the squeeze in terms of information access, responsiveness and indeed, cost.

In other words, while the Web can be a wonderful place, an electronic playground full of shiny toys, an endless source of information, a collective environment such as the world has never seen, you’re in it. Chances are, if you walk away from it, you’ll be back before long: to turn your back on the Web is tantamount to turning your back on society, which may not be precisely what anyone had in mind at the start of this journey. Where it will yet lead is anyone’s guess.

[First published on ZDNet]


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