This is a question which comes to mind quite a bit, particularly when browsing through expat Facebook groups, and often makes me feel a bit uneasy.
Of course, it’s nice to sit back and be glad that whilst you might not be a ‘digital native’ in chronological terms, at least you did all the embarrassing stuff associated with youth and extreme behaviour back in the days before social networking – before anyone even had a camera on their phones. Just imagine! Of course you cringe when you see the ‘over-sharing’ that all too easily goes on amongst those who can never imagine the consequences and responsibilities of grown-up life. But we can all easily fall into the trap of thinking that certain communications are closed, erased or forgotten about – when online there is often really no such thing.
In fact even Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google Inc, has gone on record last year to state that ‘the internet needs a delete button’. He wasn’t talking about the ‘right to be forgotten’ that Google had forced upon them in Europe last year, but about simple facts, that are pretty much impossible to erase from everywhere.
For example, in most countries there exists some right to have minor criminal convictions expunged from public record after a period of time has elapsed, and for someone who made a mistake in their misspent youth to be legally clear of having to mention it on applications for most jobs or visa applications. But, if references to the conviction exist online somewhere say in a newspaper report, what’s to stop a future employer searching and finding it, in years – or decades – to come? You can apply to have Google ‘forget’ individual references, one at a time… but how will you ever be sure you got the lot?
As we discussed in a recent column, even if you are not a convicted criminal, you might still have secrets you prefer to remain that way, in your personal private life.
For one thing, more of us are moderately illegal than we tend to think we are. Do you break the law? Surely not…
But I posted a Facebook status a few weeks back about how much I had enjoyed a US TV series, and received a number of comments back from friends helpfully pointing out where I could download the next batch of episodes – even links to torrents.
Do you ever rip a DVD to your laptop, strip the DRM off an eBook or mp3? Has every bit of software you’ve ever used been legally licenced or paid for? Or did you ever make a mixtape back when you were a kid? Because if so, you are a criminal too. Even unlocking a mobile phone can sometimes put you in this category.
Is HBO going to track my down friends who sent me those download links, and sue them? Most unlikely, BUT theoretically it’s possible. And what if one of them wants to run for political office one day, they could come up against agencies whose sole purpose is to trawl through the murkiest backwaters of the internet and dig up whatever dirt they can on the opposition.
Fancy seeking fame and fortune on a reality TV show? Then arguably you bring down whatever invasions of privacy may follow, and many must wonder whether the price of their five minutes in the limelight was ever worth it. But remember any of us could through pure circumstance find yourself in the crosshairs of the worst of the gutter press. If you are a victim of a crime, get wrongly accused, or you’re a witness or relative… phone hacking could be the least of your worries, if it is in the interests of somebody with power and resources to undermine your credibility publicly.
Perhaps these scenarios remain unlikely for most of us, living our lives quietly below the radar and not attracting anyone’s attention. But honestly, if the local tax collectors wanted to crack down on undeclared earnings amongst expats in Spain, they would have plenty to go on from one hour spent looking at local Facebook groups. No undercover detective work needed.
It’s not easy making a living in Spain today, and I am the last to pass judgement on anybody scraping a bit of cash-in-hand for lettings or airport runs or whatever… Yes it makes it harder for those of us doing stuff by the book, but no-one knows anybody else’s circumstances, and I wouldn’t call anyone out for doing what they have to to get by.
But a word of advice: if you offer services or products for sale using your name and photo on social media, in an economy that is looking very hard at ways to drag in a bit more revenue to balance the books, then I would be very cautious. Regulation is a huge burden in Spain, it’s all to easy to overlook something, and we all know how difficult and crushingly expensive it is to start a business 100% legally from the outset.
Entrepreneurial and business-minded people are often those who best thrive here in Spain, even back in the days of those things we used to call ‘jobs’ (you remember, when other people paid you a salary for doing stuff). But if you are testing an idea and trying to get a feel for market need, PLEASE be careful doing it on Facebook, where you have to use your real name and identity. That’s all!
Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, January 23rd 2015 ©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL