Should the Students' Union legally protect you from your own online persona?

Today's student media are carved in the stone of web publication though, that is potentially permanent, and searchable. The Students' Union has a duty to protect the student body from the resulting fall-out.

Across the country, students will have embarked on the University Career with Freshers' Weeks that will be unforgettable.

No, really, truly unforgettable.

They might want to forget them, such were the unwise relationships they forged, ill-judged costumes they wore on that pub crawl and general abandon and excess they experienced along with their new-found freedom, but they may not be able to do so very easily.

Firstly there is the problem of their friends. It may be that what goes on on campus, stays on campus, but it also stays on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, you get the picture - and so, unfortunately, did their roommate.

Students are adapting to this documenting of their every move though, and for many the first thing they do on the morning after is to erase as many virtual traces as they can of the night before. They are wise to the potential spread and permanence of their social media shadow.

However, there is another witness to their heady days as students that is there to record everything - Freshers' Week exuberance; the cut and thrust of student politics; triumph and defeat on the sportsfield and the rich tapestry of student life - the student newspaper. Or, as is the case on the campus at York, where I act as an adviser to the media - two student papers, a radio station, a TV station and a magazine.

And York is not unique, most universities will sustain this level of publication. That is a lot of media covering relatively small communities of 15,000 people. By the end of your degree there is a good chance you will have appeared in them in some form.

That might be for something benign, or even positive, an achievement or activity you are proud of. However, sometimes it might be something you would rather forget - student political controversy, misbehaviour by you and your teammates, the excess of the aforementioned Freshers' Week. Sad to say, and I speak from experience, rugby teams are not always the most civilising influence on campus.

If anyone wanted to dig out my misdemeanours though, they would have to excavate a 26-year-old copy of Liverpool Polytechnic's Shout magazine. I think I'm safe.

Today's student media are carved in the stone of web publication though, that is potentially permanent, and searchable. Searchable by employers. Your impassioned speech to fellow students to tear down global capitalism may have well-received in the Union debate, less so when you are looking for employment at a merchant bank. While the photo featuring the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson in full Bullingdon Club regalia has been effectively suppressed by use of copyright, were it to be taken now and slapped on a student newspaper website, it would have much greater power to embarrass for much longer.

One student publication I advise was contacted by an alumnus to raise this very problem. A Google search of his name was pulling up their website and an article where, as a former sabbatical officer, he had been accused of lying by a number of students. He asked that it be removed as he was worried it was affecting his employment prospects. I advised removal, not on ethical grounds in this instance, but because it was libellous and they did not appear to have any proof of lying - an accusation bandied about very often in the cut and thrust of student debate.

While that was a relatively easy call, what of other less clear-cut cases where there is no libel difficulty, but where something potentially damaging is being published?

There is the Data Protection Act 1998, which requires that personal data is not excessive and kept for longer than is necessary, but the journalistic exemption in that Act means students demanding their past be erased have little hope of aid from the DPA.

So is it a case of hard luck for those students embarrassed by their online cuttings? Well, not quite. Most student publications are funded entirely or in part by the Students' Union. The Union, as well as wanting to promote free expression on campus and support a vibrant media community, also has a duty of care to the wider student body. If it continues to support the publication of something which potentially damages the career prospects of an alumnus, that is a potential conflict.

Some students are arguing that the media charters which govern student publications should include a 'right to be forgotten'. How that would work is anyone's guess, if everything were to be deleted after a certain time, then positive achievements would be erased, to students' detriment. If only selected negative stories were to be deleted, who would decide which were to go?

Students' Unions and their media need to get ready to deal with these questions. As people more zealously police their online persona, they will be asked more and more.

Students at the beginning of Manchester University's Freshers Week. Image: Getty
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.