Tonawanda News

May 13, 2014

DUVALL: For Google, searches, history and the future

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Google has become the window into the world outside our physical environs. It bears questioning, then, whether we want it to be as open and transparent as the metaphor implies or whether we want the ability to leave some of our less wholesome or more embarrassing moments in the past, where we would prefer they remain.

It's a question we've wrestled with here at the Tonawanda News and one newspapers and responsible Internet news outlets have been forced to address in some form or other. 

Hardly a week goes by in this newsroom when we aren't contacted by someone who has been arrested, listed in our police blotter (sometimes years ago) and whose transgression now pops up when anyone from a blind date to a potential employer types their name in a website so ubiquitous its name is now a verb.

I sympathize, to a point, with people in this situation. The vast majority of arrests listed in our police blotter do not result in a criminal conviction. Most are relatively minor offenses. That means most people live a law-abiding life thereafter and the charges are dropped. Sometimes — most times, actually — paying your debt to society simply means not doing the bad thing again.

We must also acknowledge our own limitations as a media outlet. We publish arrests but given the drawn out nature of the court proceedings that follow we do not publish the court's eventual disposition as a matter of course. It would take the reporters here virtually all day to track down the various ends to every arrest listed in previous blotters. Practically speaking, it would be impossible.

To address this point locally, last year our newsroom amended our policy on police reports on our website. If someone who's been arrested would like us to append the arrest brief with a note about the case's disposition (usually that the charges were dismissed), we will do so if the person provides us with court documentation proving it.

Of course, none of this was of particular concern a decade ago. We have the Googles to thank for it. 

Interestingly, we're beginning to see the pendulum swing back. The story on today's front page about how Europe's top court addressed this issue is a prime example. The court ruled people should have the right to remove certain things from web search results for their names.

The decision brings about a raft of ethical questions. What meets the threshold for innocuous enough to be removed from the Internet? Who gets to decide? If we open the door to deleting some portions of history as recorded online, who can we trust to ensure there isn't something more important being removed with more sinister intent?

Maybe we can call the agency in charge the Ministry of Truth.

It's sure nice to have the answer to any conceivable question at your fingertips. The price to pay is, so does everyone else. And if that person happens to wonder what the Internet has to say about you, well, they're probably going to get their answer.

Can that change? Should it?

I think it's important we keep an accurate record of what's happened here. This is a newspaper's most basic job and the Internet has made doing a better job of it infinitely easier. It's why we will not, under any circumstances, take down an arrest report or any other story. A newspaper's core mission — and one that Internet purists share — is providing transparency. Whitewashing history by removing stories from our website would undermine the fundamental value in the work we do.

At day's end, I side more with the transparency folks. Is it fair to have a teenage transgression follow you your entire life? No. But it did happen. You may disagree — and there are instances where I do, too — but the prevailing sentiment is our society values free, easy access to information more than the privacy of keeping embarrassing episodes from public scrutiny.

A point worth considering for the 19-year-old who just got busted with a joint in his pocket: The farther we get into the digital age, the less things like this will matter to people. Employers and potential romantic partners alike will eventually be forced to alter expectations in a world where everyone's dirty laundry is but a few keystrokes away.

It's a gradual process and, for some, a change that can't come soon enough.