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Sanitizing the Past

August 17, 2014

The other day, I heard a news report on CBC radio about an application that was able to search social media.  It would analyze images and scan text, looking for anything that was potentially compromising.  I believe that each search would cost five dollars.  People could then contact the posters of any such material and ask them to remove it.  My first thought was that here was another way to sanitize your past.

This news report also reminded me of the recent European ruling on web searches, generally called the right to be forgotten.  The purpose of this legislation is to require search engine companies to remove links to erroneous or outdated material.  It’s proven to be very popular.  Certainly, many uses of this service are legitimate, but some people are also using it to rewrite history.  Of course, the original material is still there, but it no longer appears in the search results.

Google is a victim of its own success in the web search arena.  People assume that if the information they want is not found in a Google search, it doesn’t exist.  In practice, they rarely look beyond the first page of search results, even though there may be dozens of pages of results.  With the links removed, they will never know about the missing information.

These attempts to rewrite history and to sanitize the past bring up images of George Orwell‘s book 1984.  It was twice made into movies.  I prefer the first one, in black and white.  Winston Smith worked at the Ministry of Truth, which was responsible for lies.  His job was to change the past.  Whenever one of the government officials was branded a traitor, he would receive a copy of a newspaper article that featured that official, along with a note that he was to rewrite the article with that official omitted.  Now this seems to be happening in reality, except that requests are coming from individuals rather than government ministries.  There must be better ways of handling situations of outdated or erroneous material in our new Internet-centred world.


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