Unpublishing the Web

When does removing online content or editing it after the fact cross the line into censorship? In an intelligent article posted to Alternet earlier this week, Melinda Burns investigates the ways in which the Web and "cloud computing" have made it easier to erase the past, and finds that "unpublishing" poses a grave and largely unrecognized risk to the Web's unprecedented wealth of information.

The ways in which online content changes are many, from newspapers amending their archives at the request of people who don't want past coverage showing up in online searches, to whole papers, magazines and journals going bankrupt and losing their sites and the associated years of stored content. While the Web has made access to information mind-bogglingly greater (how many more people are performing searches of newspapers' online archives than were rolling through microfilms or mailing requests for back issues?), in its digital form, that same information can much more easily be amended or lost altogether. Obviously, changing or destroying the public record brings up a whole host of political and journalistic issues, and Burns's piece cites Columbia University's recently established Human Rights Web Archive as an example of efforts to save some of the Web's most vital information. The archive identifies and preserves "sites that are providing valuable information on struggles for democracy in other countries," many of which are at risk of "being hacked, suspended or shut down by repressive regimes." But the project's funding and scope is limited, and rules and standards for what deserves preserving and what we cannot let disappear are still evolving.

A good example of the haphazard nature of Web regulations came out of Milan last week when a court there convicted three Google executives for violating Italian privacy laws by hosting a bullying clip on Google Video. Though none of the executives were in court to hear the ruling, the international community reacted strongly to the case: a British MP called it "the biggest threat to internet freedom we have seen in Europe," and the American ambassador to Italy said that the verdict violated the "freedom of the internet," a "human right that is to be protected in free societies." The statement on Google's official blog said the ruling posed a "serious threat to the web." Of course, the ruling's detractors are not advocating a Wild West Web above privacy laws and other protections; their fears center on the way holding Google executives accountable for content posted to a Google site will promote an atmosphere of preemptive self-censorship in which administrators remove any questionable hosted materials, even if the materials violate no laws.

But as the Guardian's Charles Arthur explains, this danger is already a reality. Arthur summarizes one YouTube user's experience:

The most egregious case seems to be that of Mark Kobayashi-Hillary, who filmed some people waiting for a Jimmy Carr gig, and popped the video up on YouTube (which is owned by Google). Someone from Carr's management registered a complaint and even though he was not shown performing..., it was deleted, along with every single other one Kobayashi-Hillary's 900-odd videos about all sorts of things.

While newspapers have a position of relative privilege in terms of the content they can run, the rights of individuals posting to giant video hosting sites are less clear, and therefore more at risk. As painful as they are to watch, what if administrators had decided that videos of Oscar Grant or Neda Agha-Soltan were too offensive, or that hosting them might violate some law? Videos are no less susceptible than newspapers' archives to the threat of "unpublishing," and they need the same protection and preservation.

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