Does Web Threaten Sanctity of Electronic Archives?

By: Steve Outing

How sacred are electronic archives?

That question came up recently on the online-news Internet mailing list, which I administer. The list has a hypermail archive site on the World Wide Web, where the electronic discussions about online publishing are archived and easily searchable.

But what if you're a member of such an electronic forum, and you've posted something that you later regret -- or by mistake. Should you be able to remove from the archive the words you posted publicly?

Recently, I received several requests from list members to do exactly that -- to remove messages that they had posted to the list. In each of the cases, a subscriber had inadvertently sent a message to the 1,600 people on the list when the intention had been to send a note privately to one person. This is an easy mistake to make on a mailing list; if you reply to a posting to the list, your email software may or may not also include as a default the list address as well as the individual recipient you hope to reach. It's easy to forget to check the To: and cc: fields in your outgoing reply and accidentally send out a private (and potentially embarrassing and damaging) communication to hundreds or thousands of people.

An example of why someone might want their messages deleted from the archive of a list is a graduate student who inadvertently sent a private message to the online-news list, then posted a follow-up note to the list apologizing for the mistake. Since he is currently looking for a job, he feared that a potential employer would run a search on his name on one of the Web search engines. Of the handful of results such a search would turn up would be a message titled, "It was a mistake! I'm so sorry!" He asked that I remove the messages as a favor, and I did.

But because I've received several such requests in recent weeks, and because excising a message is a time-consuming process for the person who maintains the online-news Web site for me, I announced that I would be willing to remove such messages in the future only if accompanied by a $20 fee (in order to compensate my Webmaster for his time to perform the task). The intent of the new policy was to discourage further requests -- not to profit from others' mistakes -- but still allow a mechanism to remove embarrassing postings when truly necessary.

My policy caused a bit of a stir and prompted an interesting debate about the nature of electronic archives. While I had removed relatively innocuous messages, what about a message posted to a public forum that the author later decided was inappropriate, or perhaps he later thought better of his hastily worded and vitriolic language? Should that person be allowed to alter the electronic record? Some list members felt strongly that my request for money to delete a message from the archive sullied the affair; others said the policy should be to "never" alter the electronic archive.

One online-news participant reacted to my policy with tongue (at least partly) in cheek: "Hmmm. As the keeper of the system that holds (my newspaper's) electronic archive, I'm considering a similar plan. For a modest charge, I'll remove the ill-considered comments of politicians, sports figures, etc. For example, Bill Clinton may want me to change 'I smoked it, but didn't inhale' to 'I never would dream of violating our great nation's drug laws.' Pricing on request. Dial 1-800-2ORWELL."

The issues this unearths are fascinating. In the old print world of newspaper "morgues," there was no question about going back in and editing old articles. If a researcher happened upon a story in a print archive that contained an error, the subsequent correction that may have run in the paper a day or two later may or may not have been stapled to it. Past mistakes could take on a new life when readers at a later date picked up the article in an archive.

In the electronic world, some manner of archive editing is commonplace. Many newspapers regularly update their archives, fixing minor errors. For example, if a story that has already been deposited in an electronic archive turns out to have an error, and the newspaper subsequently ran a correction in print, librarians may go in to the archive and fix the original story -- or at least attach the correction to the end of the story. This is a service to the reader, in that when going back to the archive to find information, she will not be presented with a factually inaccurate story. On the other hand, this practice might be considered by some to be sullying the integrity of the archive.

Librarians have long been dealing with this issue -- and most of them will tell you about the importance of maintaining the integrity of the archive. When it comes to editing in the electronic archive, innocuous corrections like spelling a person's name correctly or righting a monetary figure mistake (e.g., millions when the original story said billions) might be made for the permanent archive. But archivists will draw the line at a reporter or editor wanting to go back in and edit a story extensively after the fact.

Now this issue spills over to those who run publications' electronic discussion forums (who usually aren't trained librarians versed in the ethics of archiving). How sacred should you consider the forum archives, and where do you draw the line as to what's fair game to edit or delete?

I think that common sense must prevail, rather than a blanket policy of "we'll never touch the archives." Certainly, as most publications operating online services have found, there will be times when a forum participant's message will need to be deleted from the archive after the fact -- because it's obscene, libelous, etc. This is common practice at most newspaper online sites' discussion forums.

In deciding whether to act on a forum participant's request to delete from the archive a message by that person, again this should be taken on a case by case basis. The participant who accidentally posts an embarrassing private note should be accommodated. The person who posted an angry flame and who later realizes that his hastily typed words make him look foolish should probably be told that the policy of the forum is not to allow such action. And the politician who wants to go back and edit or delete his words should be told bluntly to post another note or correction to the forum.

I've also seen instances where someone will repost someone else's private or off-the-record comments to an entire discussion forum -- in effect, violating that person's privacy -- a rude practice but all too common. In such cases, it might be reasonable to accommodate the victim's request that the post be deleted.

Where to draw the line on this issue is the responsibility of the individual forum manager or list owner. But they must be guided by a sense of responsibility, knowing when altering an electronic archive is acceptable and when it presents ethical problems.

And let me end with an outstanding piece of advice forwarded by Daniel Dern to anyone who posts messages to electronic forums: "Think twice. Post once."

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