5. Young adults and the right to make mistakes

For young people growing up in the digital age, the blurring of the boundaries between the private and public realms is more pronounced than it was in the past.

“People who spent their college years and high school years before the internet had a lot more freedom and leeway to indulge in the not uncommon flights of idiocy that everyone goes through when they’re young,” Crerar says. “There wasn’t as much of a risk of it being preserved.”

Now, because of the prevalence of smartphones and social media, there’s a greater risk that there will be “a permanent record of activities that you may not want in the public record when you’re applying for job interviews or when you have grandchildren,” he says.

For Crerar, those of college age—who occupy the “grey zone” where people are not minors but remain youthful—are particularly vulnerable.   

The university context is a factor, he says. “A lot of people, during Frosh Week, do silly things under the influence of alcohol and it would be disproportionate to have a permanent record of that.”

CBC’s Esther Enkin agrees. The ombudsman indicates that the context would be different if the participants had been involved in a criminal act that had gone through the court system, which would be part of the public record. She points to CBC policies saying that if the media chooses to identify someone accused of a crime, there’s a “strong obligation” to follow the case until it reaches its final outcome.

Concerns about the blurring of the private and public realms in the social media age have provided some of the impetus behind the legal fight for “the right to be forgotten.”

The “right to be forgotten” is a legal concept enshrined in European human rights law that some commentators suggest may soon find its way to North America. It allows individuals the right to have some degree of control over past events in their lives. Recognizing the long-term effects that news stories can have, it offers the possibility of erasing damaging digital records of an event that is no longer occurring or which is no longer newsworthy.

“You could see why you would like to be able to erase some youthful mistakes that may have been unwise and unduly harsh,” Rogers says.

Next: 6. Holding people responsible