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Sorry, the only safe sexting is no sexting

the dangers of SextingWhen I think about sexting, I can’t help but recall my sixth-grade health class teacher. “The only safe sex,” she was so fond of telling us, “is no sex.” The thing is, the part of me that will someday be a parent actually understands this intractable thought process: The urge to protect your kids overcomes all rational sense of how kids actually are.

It’s why parents go apoplectic when New York City public high schools start handing out emergency contraceptives, as they did earlier this year, even though studies overwhelmingly find that their availability neither increases sex among teens, nor causes them to engage in unprotected sex more often. (Actually, most parents participating in the NYC pilot approved of the program — it was outside parents who protested.)

I imagine this well-meaning denial is also why it took so long for a decent contraceptive for online sex to show up: Snapchat. It’s the Plan-B-in-public-school answer to sexting, an app that allows you to send someone a picture of yourself with a built in self-destruct feature. Send a photo you might regret taking, and 10 seconds later — poof — it’s automatically deleted from the recipient’s phone. Though not specifically marketed for the less-than-wholesome uses it has earned a reputation for, it’s a brilliant stroke of old-school engineering applied to a medium that’s become something of a hot bed for controversy.

Case in point: Last year, 26-year-old Hunter Moore became the Internet’s Most Hated Person for posting cell phone pictures of naked teens on his website “Is Anyone Up?” Most of the photos reportedly originated as sexts between couples that eventually parted ways acrimoniously — and were forwarded to Moore as a means of exacting revenge. It was public humiliation on a global scale; traffic on the site swelled to over half a million unique views at its peak, and by Moore’s “own admission, ruin[ed] lives and cost victims their jobs,” according to a profile in The Daily Beast. And there are countless imitators.

Why then, do we risk so much when we know clear well what the consequences may be? Professor Andrew Harris, an expert in public policy at Umass Lowell, points to the same shortcoming that drives so much adolescent behavior: The inability to think ahead.

“Some teens, particularly those who are younger, may engage in the behavior out of developmental immaturity, impulsivity, and lack of ability to anticipate longer-range consequences,” says Prof. Harris. “These are all normal adolescent experiences. There is nothing new about teenagers taking risks and not adopting a future orientation.” Self-destructing text messages ala Mission: Impossible seemed like the perfect answer to malignant opportunists like Moore and his ilk.

Unfortunately, they’re not. 

Because even though the photos sent through Snapchat might seem ephemeral, it is still shockingly easy for someone to take a screenshot of a picture on an iPhone. And even though Snapchat alerts the sender if nefarious screen-grabbing methods have been deployed, that’s not all that helpful once you’ve already sent the photo — it’s sort of like learning someone has an STD after you’ve already slept with them. Still, that hasn’t stopped the service from becoming a massive hit — to the tune of 50 million messages a day sent and received. It has even spawned credible rumors that Facebook itself is developing a Snapchat competitor; never mind that putting you in control of your own data as Snapchat has done is counter to everything Facebook stands for.

What Snapchat’s success really represents, however, is a fundamental yearning to be more fully in command of our personal reputations online. Sexting is only the most visible and visceral metaphor for the state of our entire digital lives. We — each and every one of us who sit behind a keyboard and deliver our opinions, our pictures, our jokes and political beliefs and allegiances and prejudices into this world on a daily basis — are currently at the mercy of a system that has not yet caught up with its own responsibilities to protect us.

Europeans take this stuff very seriously; the “right to be forgotten” is about to be codified into sweeping legislation by the European Commission for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, and could penalize giants such as Google and Facebook up to two percent of their global revenue — that would be about $760,000,000 in Google’s case — if they fail to remove content that European users regret uploading, even if that content has already spread widely throughout the Web. According to George Washington University Law Professor Jeffrey Rosen, this principle has its basis in a French law known as “‘le droit à l’oubli’ — or the ‘right of oblivion’ — a right that allows a convicted criminal who has served his time and been rehabilitated to object to the publication of the facts of his conviction and incarceration.” Viviane Reding, the European commissioner responsible for the regulation, framed it like this:

“If an individual no longer wants his personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system.”

But Americans aren’t Europeans, and free speech — that pesky first amendment — is actually something of a sacred cow around here. Mr. Rosen thinks that the right to be forgotten “represents the biggest threat to free speech on the Internet in the coming decade,” and will “precipitate a dramatic clash between European and American conceptions of the proper balance between privacy and free speech, leading to a far less open Internet.”

Imagine a corrupt politician legally able to expunge from the Internet all media accounts of his dirty dealings, and you begin to understand what’s really at stake. Yet the alternative reality which we are fast approaching is one where our own words, our own likeness, or own thoughts, are not in fact our own to control. They belong, instead, to a collective Internet, over which we are relatively powerless. Most celebrities consider a lack of privacy the sacrifice they make for a life of luxury and influence. But what are we getting in return?

The answer is that there probably is no real answer. Technology like Snapchat is a good start for a very specific circumstance, but in practice it’s all but useless. And legal measures, such as Europe’s far-reaching legislation, jeopardize the very things that make the Internet such a vital and exciting — such an essential — part of modern life. I can imagine some future where every bit of content we publish online has our own unique stamp, a virtual passport of metadata that never leaves its host no matter how many times its copied or shared or tweeted, which can be kept track of and deleted at the click of a button. But until the law or the code catches up with how the Internet is really being used, we are left precariously unprotected, fending for ourselves. And if that’s the case, can we ever truly be “free” online?