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As the Internet Replaces Print Publishing, Urge to 'Unpublish' Means Censoring History

The Internet has opened up the past and made it fungible with a few keystrokes. The offended know it's physically easy to change a story online.

Once upon a time, news stories were entombed in newspaper "morgues" and rarely saw the dusty light of day.

Now the news never dies. Millions of people can search the archives online -- an amazing benefit unless, perhaps, you're someone who was actually in the news.

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.

Some readers don't want their marital status or the price of their home known, or they were quoted saying something they now regret. They may be angry because the news of their arrest was reported, but not the news that they were acquitted or that charges were dropped, and their names keep popping up on Internet searches in connection with the crimes, usually misdemeanors.

Pre-Internet, of course, the reports remained on paper, intact and inviolable -- but also inaccessible to the casual viewer and probably unknown. The Internet has opened up the past and made it fungible with a few keystrokes. The offended know it's physically easy to change a story online.

"Most often, these individuals don't understand a newspaper's greater responsibility to its readers and the public record," said Kathy English, the Star's public editor, the author of the report, and the person who handles reader requests to "unpublish," in consultation with the Star's lawyers and senior editors.

" To erase the record of what has been published would diminish transparency and credibility with readers," English said.

Nearly 80 percent of the editors who participated in the survey said the circumstances sometimes do warrant changing the record. Some said they would remove information if there were a legal reason to do so. Others were more open to adding information than subtracting it. Overall, though, they were strongly resistant to altering published stories, even as they said they want to be fair to those named in the news.

As Kathy Steiner of the Jamestown Sun wrote, "'Unpublishing' is a word that doesn't accurately reflect what people are asking. They're asking to censor or rewrite history."

'Haphazard deterioration'
On a much broader scale, "unpublishing" is the wholesale loss of content that can occur when an online journal or Web archive is sold or goes bankrupt, or the software needed to read it becomes obsolete. It's expensive to transfer records from an old server to a newer, faster version that operates with different formats and programs. A floppy disk has a half-life of about five years.

"It's not clear who's responsible to archive digital material," said Stanley Katz, director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. "Some of the stuff's going to go away altogether. We are likely to lose whole subsets of it. If we keep renewing everything, we can keep it going. But the question is whether there is money and commitment enough to keep it going. The odds are that money will be applied selectively. "

"If the New York Times goes out of business, whose responsibility is it to preserve their digital archive? This kind of thing is happening as we watch. It's not speculation."

In George Orwell's sci-fi classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four,the Records Department of the super-state of Oceania is abruptly forced to work around the clock to rectify five years' worth of political newspapers, books and pamphlets, expunging all references to Oceania's long-term alliance with Eastasia. Because, the clerks learn, "Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia."

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