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Will the past last in the digital age?
March 6, 2010 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Digital disappearance. "In a recent survey of 110 news organizations, the Toronto Star found that increasingly, publishers are fielding regular requests from anxious and embarrassed readers to “unpublish” information, sometimes months or years after it first appeared online." posted by severiina (31 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not in favor of throwing things down the memory hole, but I've for quite some time held the opinion that news organizations should have the responsibility to properly correct themselves when someone is named as being a suspect in or accused of a crime for which they are later exonerated. At the very least, they should ensure that the article where they reported the acquittal/exoneration appears before the accusal in any search order that they have control over.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:37 AM on March 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


At least one of the points they're talking about is pretty serious, actually. Unless your case is extremely high profile, your acquittal (or not uilty verdict) won't make the news even if the charges against you did. That means Google only ever says you're guilty*. The only thing I can think that might start rectifying this would be for the people building the Google-indexable archives construct them in such a way that accusations are always linked to the result, and both be at the same "depth" in the database. That way spiders might actually get them both.


* Technically "accused", but that's a distinction a lot of people aren't going to care too much about.
posted by Decimask at 9:39 AM on March 6, 2010


Google used up my daily alottment of 'G's.
posted by Decimask at 9:40 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thank god we have MetaTalk where if this ever happens on MetaFilter and we have a long discussion about the potential impacts to the site and the necessary merits of the case required to do so the discussion will be preserved so in the future when it comes up again everyone can reference the previous thoughts on the topic.
posted by Babblesort at 9:42 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sweet lord: "The only thing I can think of that might start rectifying this would be for the people building the Google-indexable archives to construct them in such a way that accusations are always linked to the resulting verdict, and both be at the same "depth" in the database."

Time for more coffee.
posted by Decimask at 9:42 AM on March 6, 2010


It seems to me versioning stories, à la the Guardian, is the more responsible way to do this.
posted by rodgerd at 9:50 AM on March 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think this is a good companion posts to the recent posts about anonymity online and the future of the web. I'd stuck it in one of those posts but I definitely think it deserves discussion.
posted by cashman at 9:52 AM on March 6, 2010


So does this mean that there will be a significant rise in "personal PR" cases where private citizens need to take control of their online image with professional help?
posted by medea42 at 9:53 AM on March 6, 2010


Happens to us all the time. You think it's awesome to Join the Discussion until six years later when you're looking for a job and your pro-syphilis letter written after viewing "The Lost Children of Rockdale County" is your first Google result.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:53 AM on March 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


It'll be interesting to see what this is like when I'm 50. My theory is that a lot of the things we're all worried about are going to cease to matter, because everyone will have some of their skeletons stuck out in the open interweb. The dangerously illegal and the heinous will keep their sting, but the photos of drunk you with a lampshade on your head? No one will care.
posted by Decimask at 10:08 AM on March 6, 2010


Huh, interesting topic. I was both gratified and a bit amused recently to find that this Web policy, which I wrote and posted back in 2005 in response to multiple "Please unpublish this" requests, is still in effect on my college newspaper's website.

In my current job, I've made it a point to ask about anything I've found in my publication's archives that isn't "live"—and there have thankfully only been a few stories where that was the case—both because of the tenets set out in that earlier Web policy and because I was the one who posted the majority of what's up there, so the idea of seeing it erased kinda bothers me.
posted by limeonaire at 10:18 AM on March 6, 2010


I read the linked article last week when it popped up at the dog-end of this rather contentious META-thread. The main point that comes through for me (both from the article and the META) is best captured in this comment (taken out of context, of course) from Mitheral ...

But if you send a letter to the editor with the understanding it'll be published in their paper (or maybe a better example is a personal ad) you don't get to come back to years later and ask for it to be purged from their public archives. Even if you own the copyright you've obviously given the paper permission to post it and archive it as that is the basis of their entire business.

That is, the internet is more or less a public place populated with companies whose business is the information they both share and COLLECT, so what you "say" here is very much on the Public Record. Creepy? Maybe. But as Decimask points out, unless you're transgressions are particularly heinous, they're likely destined to just get lost in all the noise.

Quoting myself now:

In doing so, you're committing something to the public record, with the added bonus that it's far easier to "anonymize" yourself on (the net) than with a newspaper. Just make up a user name, DON'T TELL IT TO ANYONE, and keep all personal info off your profile.
posted by philip-random at 10:23 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's not just newspapers. I've gotten enough requests from people who have asked me to delete their comments from my site that I had to post a policy for it (which is: I won't).
posted by jscalzi at 11:05 AM on March 6, 2010


I have the same issue on a site I run about collectibles. A lot of auction reports get published, and when a new owner comes along they want me to erase the old reports, which I won't.
posted by maxwelton at 11:35 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know how gang members these days seem to be cultivating a uniform enough look (even across gangs, to some degree) not to be easily distinguished on surveillance video?

Well, parents could get their kid off on the right foot by giving them a somewhat but not too common name.

I wonder how many formal petitions for changes of names have already cited bad Google results (I'm trying to work up a name for this which uses decimask's wonderful idea of Google without the 'G': 'I have to change it, your Honor, because when you search on my name it's really oogly'; hmm, nope-- Boogly?).
posted by jamjam at 11:38 AM on March 6, 2010


I do not fear for The Future; I fear The Past ... especially as it gets writ by those who will follow and have not a clue as to what has been lost.

It is rare that a newpaper actually has any real (read="legal") responsibility to the "Public Record" as Ms. English refers to it in the article. Those that do are certainly circumspect about how the morgue gets used, who has access to it etc., so there is a level of "trustworthy"-ness to their holdings.

My read on the concept of "Public Record" as cited above by @philip-random is that the Internet in and of itself is NOT "public record". "Public", yes..."Record", not so much.

Luciana Duranti presented a paper(direct PDF link) recently that addressed the concept of "the integrity of a system" and how that related to the preservation of digital information. Because the "Internet" is not a single system, there is no "integrity" to be had, so what is out there may or may not be "of record" in any kind of trustworthy or verifiable form of "permanence". [DISCLAIMER: yes, I was there. Yes, I heard her speak. Yes, I spoke the next day]

That's not to say that there are no "trustworthy" systems connected on the 'net, but rather, we need to be aware that not all systems are equal. It's reminiscent of the not too-remote days of hacking websites...you really need to know what was there to begin with and what came next. Google's cached results are interesting for that alone, but I hesitate to call them the public record. As a corporate entity, I'm not sure I trust them to be providing the system with integrity (heh, look at their own record of late.).

This won't go away as long as there are humans creating human record; somebody will always be wronged, somebody will always disagree with what has been said, someone will always be misquoted. Web policy, records retention schedules, archives policies ... it's the human, not the technical, that's the problem.

But hell, what do I know? I'm just a guitar player...
posted by aldus_manutius at 12:23 PM on March 6, 2010


It would be nice to think that a greater general awareness of the "forever-public" nature of one's online words and deeds would cause people to be a bit more...not self-censoring, really; let's say thoughtful...about what they put on the Internet. Ayup, that'd be real nice...
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:27 PM on March 6, 2010


In my idealistic moments, what I hope will happen is that people will realize that when consuming and acting on information they have a certain responsibility not to be total idiots, and this includes having a notion of public versus private life. A job applicant's name shows up in an old news article about a crime? Well, you should probably try to figure out if it is in fact the applicant, and if they were guilty of anything relevant to the job. You find their profile on a weird fetish website? What the heck? It would be totally inappropriate for HR to send someone to my favorite pub and eavesdrop on my conversations, or hide in the bushes by my house and watch my windows and tail my car, even though those are all things I'm doing in public, they are not public parts of my life. (Yeah, sure, if my job needs a crazy security clearance or something, then OK. But that's not what we're talking about.) People seem to think that kind of corporate stalking is acceptable if done electronically, simply because it's easy. It takes Fiorina-esque levels of invasiveness for people to decide that someone has gone too far.

Yes, I know this is an unrealistic bit of idealism. People will continue to be penalized for irrelevant things, like wearing the wrong tie to an interview or speaking with the wrong accent. But hopefully people will at least come to realize that these are stupid and irrelevant things; you have to expect that a potential employer might pick through your private life, but you don't have to agree that it's right for them to do it.
posted by hattifattener at 12:39 PM on March 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


My read on the concept of "Public Record" as cited above by @philip-random is that the Internet in and of itself is NOT "public record". "Public", yes..."Record", not so much.

To clarify:

Yes, the "Record" aspect of the internet is dubious at best. Sites come and sites go. But some do seem to be with us for the long haul (or certainly their archives will be in some form or other) and as such, the words we commit to them will live to haunt us (or not) for years, decades, perhaps generations to come.
posted by philip-random at 1:02 PM on March 6, 2010


Decimask said:
It'll be interesting to see what this is like when I'm 50. My theory is that a lot of the things we're all worried about are going to cease to matter, because everyone will have some of their skeletons stuck out in the open interweb. The dangerously illegal and the heinous will keep their sting, but the photos of drunk you with a lampshade on your head? No one will care.

Mostly disagree. I'm just past that unspeakable age you spoke aloud, and I'm very aware of how people use and misuse information.

Let's look at your lampshade example. If you were in line for promotion to sales manager at a car dealership, that lampshade thing probably wouldn't matter. Your boss may have even been the guy taking the picture. But if you're running for Senate or Governor or similar, that shit will stick. Look how Sen. Kerry's presidential campaign was damaged by shots of him windsurfing, FFS. (as if there's something wrong with windsurfing...)

What's worse is how impressions or memes can be constructed on flimsy foundations, and have a life long after the originating event occurred, or even survives. Example - if you're a junior politician, and someone publicly links you to that lampshade picture, you will forever be regarded by most as being a drunk in your youth.
posted by Artful Codger at 1:23 PM on March 6, 2010


Example - if you're a junior politician, and someone publicly links you to that lampshade picture, you will forever be regarded by most as being a drunk in your youth.

I actually agree with you, but the example is wrong. Our last two presidents have respectively been a drunk and a user of hard drugs. Hasn't seemed to hurt their ratings.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:04 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


My theory is that a lot of the things we're all worried about are going to cease to matter, because everyone will have some of their skeletons stuck out in the open interweb. The dangerously illegal and the heinous will keep their sting, but the photos of drunk you with a lampshade on your head? No one will care.

Let's put it this way - the zeitgeist is serious open handed NOW, but there is no reason to suppose that it won't ever go back. The regency buck who survived into the age of Victoria was a serious scandal to his family. No reason it can't happen again. You're what, 28? I can absolutely see in another two decades the world getting seriously straight laced again.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:14 PM on March 6, 2010


Example - if you're a junior politician, and someone publicly links you to that lampshade picture, you will forever be regarded by most as being a drunk in your youth.

Here's hoping that come "the future" we will have collectively matured enough to realize that the individuals worth NOT trusting are precisely those who never got stupidly drunk once or twice in their youth.

Let's put it this way - the zeitgeist is serious open handed NOW, but there is no reason to suppose that it won't ever go back. The regency buck who survived into the age of Victoria was a serious scandal to his family. No reason it can't happen again. You're what, 28? I can absolutely see in another two decades the world getting seriously straight laced again.

This really is a paranoid and helpless read of what's to come, as if "the future" is this thing that will happen to us and we can have no influence on what it might be. So we better just tighten up and behave ourselves right f***ing now and otherwise cover up all evidence that we ever had stupid fun or scratched our asses in public view, lest our actions come back to haunt us in some horrible way.
posted by philip-random at 5:19 PM on March 6, 2010


My theory is that a lot of the things we're all worried about are going to cease to matter, because everyone will have some of their skeletons stuck out in the open interweb. The dangerously illegal and the heinous will keep their sting, but the photos of drunk you with a lampshade on your head? No one will care.

Ever lived in a small town? Everyone knows everyone else's business and, let me tell you, it does not foster an open, non-judgemental attitude. It'd be great if you bold new vision of the future came about. But I don't have that much confidence.

This really is a paranoid and helpless read of what's to come,

Sounds more like a reading based on, I don't know, a non-trivial familiarity with actual social history. It happens again and again. Only the truly arrogant or ignorant would imagine it can't happen to them, never mind that they can stop it.
posted by rodgerd at 5:56 PM on March 6, 2010


But if you're running for Senate or Governor or similar, that shit will stick. Look how Sen. Kerry's presidential campaign was damaged by shots of him windsurfing, FFS. (as if there's something wrong with windsurfing...)

Hmm, I was under the impression that Kerry's windsurfing shots were PR that didn't go over.
posted by telstar at 6:02 PM on March 6, 2010


Hands up everyone who's happy that the alt.* groups are no longer searchable on Google! Because God knows I am!!
posted by KathrynT at 6:22 PM on March 6, 2010


Ever lived in a small town? Everyone knows everyone else's business and, let me tell you, it does not foster an open, non-judgemental attitude. It'd be great if you bold new vision of the future came about. But I don't have that much confidence.

This. The Internet made and is making the world a whole lot smaller, with all the good and bad that that entails. And it's not like you can move out of town if things don't suit you anymore.

And yes, KathrynT. I googled my AOL username from when I was 10 once and physically flinched to see the first few results. Thankfully I dumped that username when I was still fairly young and few people who know me now would probably even remember it. There ought to be a private, separate internet for kids under 18 and they just throw away or make privately viewable everything you posted on it when you come of age. At least for a lot of my formative years we were mostly on LiveJournal and you could go back and retroactively edit or make posts protected or private and scrub people from your flists. These days you're lucky to be able to delete things on a lot of the sites where kids hang out.

Ultimately for me, whether others can see what I've said is secondary. I just hate knowing it's out there, period, whether anyone other than an algorithm is reading it or not. I feel like I just produce things of higher quality now than I used to, and it's hard having crap things of mine out in the tubes. When I was posting, I didn't know I was stupid, but now I DO know that I was and I hate it. This is what drives me so crazy about the whole "You should know that the internet is a public record" argument. Well, yeah, at the time I thought what I was saying was fit for print. But it's not as though there was some editor sitting on the internet to say "This one isn't really worth publishing because this person is obviously thirteen years old and none too swift." That editor was me, a girl of thirteen, and she thought what I was saying was solid gold GENIUS.

I guess in ten years I'll probably google this name and read this comment and think, "Dah!! You fool!" and wish I could take it back.
posted by little light-giver at 7:48 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


ME: This really is a paranoid and helpless read of what's to come,

rodgerd: Sounds more like a reading based on, I don't know, a non-trivial familiarity with actual social history. It happens again and again. Only the truly arrogant or ignorant would imagine it can't happen to them, never mind that they can stop it.


All apologies if my comments have come across as arrogant and/or ignorant. My imagination is frankly far too vivid to NOT have imagined (many times) the worst sort of coercions and tortures being imposed upon me (and those I love) by dark and sinister forces of compliance, control and conformity. They're out there, no question, and they really do HATE us all (those of us who choose, even just occasionally, to be free).

But here's the thing. I happen to think, like we used to say about THE TERRORISTS, that THEY have already won if we start not just censoring ourselves, but running around trying to erase evidence of our random acts of stupidity yeah, but also maybe Dada-esque eruptions of voluptuous innocence ... or whatever those words are that might describe us when we are free, even for a moment, of societal concerns.
posted by philip-random at 10:21 PM on March 6, 2010


Sure I'll unpublish that for ya, sweetie. You want me to make you a virgin again while I'm at it?
posted by Phanx at 3:38 AM on March 7, 2010


It would be nice to think that a greater general awareness of the "forever-public" nature of one's online words and deeds would cause people to be a bit more...not self-censoring, really; let's say thoughtful...about what they put on the Internet. Ayup, that'd be real nice...

You know, I was dancing at a nightclub a while ago and I was a bit surprised to notice how many people seemed to think it was appropriate to video me. All of them strangers, of course, and none of them asking my permission.

And as you'll find people saying above, once something is put online it's effectively impossible to take it down, and even if it were possible there are people who would not as a matter of principle.

It's my view that to say not self-censoring, really; let's say thoughtful doesn't reflect reality as I've seen it. The only action I can take to prevent videos of me dancing being recorded and posted online is not to dance.

My theory is that a lot of the things we're all worried about are going to cease to matter, because everyone will have some of their skeletons stuck out in the open interweb. [...] the photos of drunk you with a lampshade on your head? No one will care.

That's one possible future.

Another possibility is that before society starts accepting such photos and videos, people will stop doing things which can be videoed and posted online - meaning those people don't have skeletons. So instead of society changing to accept videos of people dancing in public, it will change to a society where people don't dance much in public.

I'm not sure that would be a good thing.
posted by Mike1024 at 7:06 AM on March 7, 2010


Here in Vancouver they managed to ban smoking in night clubs a decade or so back. I imagine they could also put a restriction on video as well, assuming some group chose to make an issue of it.

I mean, this is the way that culture and technology have always integrated with each other and evolved (or devolved as the case may be). Change happens. Parameters shift. What once was cool is suddenly THREATENING. The way out of this is not to freeze up and make unreasonable/unrealistic demands (ie: JAM THAT GENII BACK IN THE BOTTLE!), it's to explore what's really going down and respond thoughtfull.

Sure I'll unpublish that for ya, sweetie. You want me to make you a virgin again while I'm at it?

Glad somebody said it. Myself, I'm a (sometimes) voice actor and there's really hot role up for grabs. Problem is, it's a ten year old boy. Could I perhaps have my voice unchanged?
posted by philip-random at 11:05 AM on March 7, 2010


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