When Blogs Attack

I had a interesting telephone call today from a woman I knew more than 10 years ago. She was the subject of a post I wrote on the site last spring: I had interviewed her for a radio piece back then, and I posted the audio of that interview along with my reflections.

She had recently “Googled” herself, and found that said post was the first search result for her name. While originally intrigued, she later found that others — friends, colleagues — had also Googled her name, found the same post, and were alternatively bemused and concerned by the content, in part because they thought it was a contemporary interview, not one conducted 10 years ago.

She called me to ask me to remove the post and the audio, and I complied, reasoning that since (a) I hadn’t originally asked her permission to post the audio, that (b) it was causing her some grief, and that (c) I consider her to own her own words, it was the Right Thing to Do.

At the same time, I cautioned her that once something is on the web, it’s difficult to completely retract: Google will cache it, other sites may archive it. And so on.

I mention this by way of notifying the readership of the absense of the item previously found here, and also to prompt some discussion about the greater issues at play here.

For example, who owns a radio interview? If I was interviewed on the CBC this morning, and they decided to replay my interview in 10 years, would they respond to a request from me to not do so?

Or, let’s say I write a masters thesis, and take a point of view that, 5 years later, I have denounced, and I want to remove my thesis from the university library? Should I be able to?

Or, is it okay to simply write about people without their permission, considering that doing so will effect how they’re seen by the rest of the world (friends, family, potential employers, legal adversaries, etc.) through the eyes of Google. My experience is that if I write about someone at all on this website, if they are not otherwise engaged in Internet work, they’ll likely appear high up on the Google search results for their name. Do we need new rules to deal with the power that this affords me?

Or, if I decided that I wanted to go and get a job with Aliant, and decided to improve my chances by removing all of the posts here that have been critical of that company, is that okay? Do I have any obligation to anyone to not do that?

I’d be interested in others’ thoughts.


Hannah's picture
Hannah on January 13, 2004 - 22:23 Permalink

A dear friend from London (UK) with whom I had lost contact over the years found me via Google and a CBC radio interview three years ago. I was very pleased to be found, but one must be aware of the digital footprints that may be out there, whether we consented to them or not. (The interview in question is very goofy but not something I am distressed about). I am not so happy that my name still appears as associated with a company I no longer wish to be linked with — but I can’t do anything about it. It has, apparently, cost me at least one job placement that I know about so far. It is much harder to be anonymous or to reinvent yourself (‘scuse me) in the web age.

padawan's picture
padawan on January 14, 2004 - 13:27 Permalink

Clearly, leaving your mark on the web can turn into carving it in stone. There is an interesting notion in law (in every democracy et least) called prescription. Yes, the law actually imposes us to forget about (almost) anything. But not the web, so far. Something will change about that, either the web allows for prescription or we change our habits to put permanent labels on people for something they did ages ago — as if no one could ever change or if anything was always meaningful out of context.

Ritchie Simpson's picture
Ritchie Simpson on January 14, 2004 - 14:48 Permalink

Interesting questions Peter but one still has the responsibilty of one’s actions past. Your response to your interviewee’s request for purging also raise some ethical issues of censorship; should you abet someone in hiding their past behaviour or positions. A dedicated search 50 years ago would have still turned up your warts; but in those simpler and slower times it would take a little longer. Internet facilities like Google bring the ability to search with great ease and speed but they only find what is there.

Lily Liver's picture
Lily Liver on January 14, 2004 - 14:48 Permalink

Even if you make a comment on some weblogs using your real name, Google will pick it up. When you do a Google search, you will find your name associated with things you may not have bargained for. Sometimes you regret comments or that you were shooting your mouth off on a weblog in the first place. It will certainly make me more judicious about what I say and about taking credit (blame?) for what I say.

Alan's picture
Alan on January 14, 2004 - 16:10 Permalink

I am not sure what is mean by prescription as this may be a usage in law from outside Canada. Is the idea of a limitations based on activities, the state can’t prosecute me after 20 years? This would not apply to evidence. If an employer said they refused you work because you made fun of them 4 or 20 years ago as evidenced by google, you are stuck dealing with that and could not sue them for not hiring you.

But what is the problem with having stated opinion that are not creamy smooth? If Peter, as he has had cause to do, wrote that I am a moron from time to time, that is soemthing between a fact and opinion which should not be regretted or deleted. I’d rather live in that world than the alternative.

Libertia's picture
Libertia on January 14, 2004 - 16:15 Permalink

This is a very interesting question. It seems to me that when you post a comment, you do so voluntarily… even if you do it in a fit of rage, you are asking for it.

But when you include someone’s else’s name, you are making their name available without their permission. And I think I should control the permission for the use of my name. If I give you permission to use my name in one context, I think you should have to ask me if you want to use it in another context.

Another point: the new federal PIPEDA law applies to small businesses as of January 1. That’s a law governing the use of personal information and one’s name certainly fits the legal definition.And since this is a small business — or connected to one — I wonder if that law would apply to things posted here?

Alan's picture
Alan on January 14, 2004 - 16:24 Permalink

It would be preferrable to have a personal blog than a business website with posts and comments if one were wanting to avoid PIPEDA ramifications.

Nils Ling's picture
Nils Ling on January 14, 2004 - 16:49 Permalink

Interesting sets and sub-sets of ethical and legal issues. If I publish something — say, if I call Alan a dope — I’m liable for my actions. If I’ve libelled him, he can sue. Likewise, if I go on CBC Radio and call Alan a dope, and he considers it libellous — he can sue me AND CBC Radio (which is why so much of what gets aired on CBC Radio is “lawyered” first — they actually have a team of guys whose job it is to ask questions like: “Well, is it a well-known fact that Alan is a dope?”) (It isn’t, Alan — but since you “volunteered” yourself as an example above, I’m taking the liberty of using you).

BUT — Peter has far less control over what gets published on this website than CBC does on their airwaves — he can either include comments or not, and while he can edit them to a certain extent and block known undesirables, he can’t be vigilant 24/7. So is PETER or Reinvented liable when I call Alan a dope? And given how easy it is to mask or apprehend identities on the net, could *I* be even held liable for calling Alan a dope?

Alan might want to live in a world where we have the freedom to call one another dopes … and I might agree. But substitute “child pornographer” or “known pedophile” or “Member of Parliament” … and it’s not hard to see how horrible this could become.

By the way, Alan is none of the above.

art's picture
art on January 14, 2004 - 16:50 Permalink

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive and creator of WAIS, one of the early hot technologies in the days before the web, talked a bit about this when he was in Toronto last year for the American Library Association conference. The Internet Archive allows content to be removed on the creator’s request, in the same way that Google will un-index a site if the owner of the site asks them to. Mr. Kahle said that it was a tough issue, and that although it happened very rarely, he did feel that the Internet Archive had to abide by the wishes of the creators of the content that the Archive seeks to preserve. One of the key factors may be the notion of public record, there have always been technologies that may inadvertently capture something that the subject may not be happy about, and I think there has to be some flexibility in these situations. What is so interesting about this example is that it appears the subject is uncomfortable because the context of the content is not evident from the content itself (the interview was 10 years ago, etc.) Anyone who works in preservation spends a lot of time trying to capture context, it’s going to be even more important as more of our virtual DNA continues to be recorded all over the place.

Libertia's picture
Libertia on January 14, 2004 - 16:51 Permalink

So what is this? It would look like a personal blog, yet it would seem to be part of a small company. I thought I remembered seeing Peter saying it wasn’t a blog — in connection with including advertising. If it has advertsing, doesn’t that make it a business?

Alan's picture
Alan on January 14, 2004 - 17:04 Permalink

You know me so poorly, Nils. But to continue, what is it to be a “dope” — I contend we are each fools in our own way, just as we are wonderful. That being the case, has a slander occured or only an observation of objective fact which, as Robbie Burns pointed out, is often observable to all but the subject. Our public lives are public and, subject to protections against compiling of data about us for certain purposes, should be accepted as part of the public record. If I say “Alan is a thief” that is different but if “I say Alan is a dope” it is another. I do not have recourse against “dope” in a practical sense as the laws of slander are so difficult to enforce, espcially with the protections of fair comment. We are and should all feel free to say that “Conrad Black has been awfully careless” and that “David Frum spouts questionable positions”.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 14, 2004 - 17:34 Permalink

According to the Privacy Commissioner’s Website:

What is not Covered by the Act?

…An organization’s collection, use or disclosure of personal information solely for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes

I would consider material here to fall under that umbrella.

Alan's picture
Alan on January 14, 2004 - 17:44 Permalink

That is interesting if only as it is almost plausible. Your problem is the word “solely” but still an arguable point in the context of new media. If you write about a person disclosing information that also can be tied to another purpose, it may not be so straight forward.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 14, 2004 - 18:32 Permalink

Only that part of the past which reflects the present is ultimately important.

One of the wisest things ever said to me was following a challenge to a colleague’s position on some issue. I explained that some time earlier he’d said something completely different. Without breaking stride or sputtering an excuse laden rationalization he said, “Yeah, I did say that. Well, that’s what I believed back then.”

We all have the freedom to change our minds and grow. Successful people will see that.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 14, 2004 - 18:44 Permalink

Imagine, Nils, calling a person a parliamentarian in public! :-)

oliver b's picture
oliver b on January 14, 2004 - 18:57 Permalink

I imagine the laws pertaining to publishing and copyright must apply. Street photographers try to get their subjects to sign “releases,” through which they relinquish all rights in perpetuity (as a writer you can sell the right to have your text published once in North America, for a year worldwide only in print, or across the universe forever in any medium, including those “yet to be invented”). I just heard on the radio that, for the first issue of Playboy, Hugh Hefner bought and ran in the magazine a photo of Marilyn Monroe naked. He bought it from the photographer, who had already published it once before, and he didn’t have to talk to Marilyn. She probably signed a release, but I suspect she would have had to only because her posing wasn’t a public event (at least at the time it took place). You can film the ticker tape parade welcoming the vets back from war: You don’t need releases from them and you can show it forever. But then, you won’t be able to take take your digicam to an NHL hockey game and broadcast your video on cable access without paying the NHL and/or getting their signature…I guess because a hockey match is something like a theatre performance, which you wouldn’t be free to film and rebroadcast either.

oliver b's picture
oliver b on January 14, 2004 - 19:23 Permalink

I should have been more explicit about writing. When I say writing I mean to include journalist interviews. So if it’s a freelance journalist, as I suppose you were, initially it’s him or her that owns the interviewed person’s words, at least in the context of the story that’s assembled from them. Eventually it’s the publisher that owns them, forever, for the purposes of one-time publishing, or on whatever basis the contract with the journalist says. I expect the same goes for broadcast journalism. I’m not sure about the status of the notes you have left over from your interview 10 years later. Not that my intuition here is worth much, but I suspect if you used them in a Broadway musical, you could lose a case in court if your interviewee chooses to bring one. I think that because your interviewee agreed to be interviewed for whatever purpose you initially told her or him, which presumably did not include a musical on Broadway.