To delete history, click here
People say the Internet never forgets — and to an extent, that’s true.
Post a picture of yourself playing beer pong in a friend’s basement on your Facebook page — or worse, have a friend post a similar picture of you — and it’s remarkable how long iterations of that photo might live on. Heck, your prospective boss three jobs from now might be asking why it looks like you’re wearing plastic moose horns and attempting intercourse with a bronze statue in a public park.
But if you’re counting on the Internet to be a complete library of documents — a permanent record — you may end up surprised, not by what’s there, but what isn’t.
Because things can vanish, especially when they exist on private websites.
Sure, documents that are removed can often have cached versions that are still available, but sometimes, things like past election platforms for parties elected to govern just have a way of vanishing from their respective party websites. Annual reports for Crown corporations you are watching go back for eight or nine years, but after that, they seem to drop off the web pages with fair regularity.
I know of at least one off- shore project where all of the environmental review documentation simply disappeared, only to magically return when a journalist started asking questions about it.
But revising the Internet’s history can go much further.
This week in the House of Commons, that point was made even more clearly, as tabled documents revealed that the government of Justin Trudeau is doing some particularly interesting erasure.
From practically its very first day in office, that government’s Privy Council Office has gone to Google to ensure that web pages connected to former prime minister Stephen Harper are removed from Google’s search index. The pages may exist — somewhere — but the road map to finding them has been erased. Use the urls you can find in search browsers to try and reach things like past prime ministerial news releases, and you’ll get error messages.
Truth is, if you’re a private individual who wants to remove things — say, the news stories about the time you were charged with an offence where the charges were dismissed or you were found not guilty — you might find it’s a steep uphill climb. But if you hold the keys to a particular web page kingdom, you have far more options.
It’s a shame. I’m really fond of George Santanya’s saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But how exactly do you remember the past, if there are those in the present make a diligent effort to erase parts of it they just don’t like?
We have perhaps the greatest tool we’ve ever had to not only store huge volumes of information, but to also make it broadly publicly available. Self-interested editing — rewriting history to suit — is both a mistake and a danger.
This may be the time of the paperless cloud. But sometimes, you’d better be keeping paper or off-line copies, too. Because up there in the cloud, the weather can change.