The New York Times recently got some search-engine-optimization religion, and as a result its articles, including old stories from its vast archives, are now more likely to appear at or near the top of web searches. But the tactic has had an unintended consequence, writes the paper’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, in a thought-provoking article today: “Long-buried information about people that is wrong, outdated or incomplete is getting unwelcome new life. People are coming forward at the rate of roughly one a day to complain that they are being embarrassed, are worried about losing or not getting jobs, or may be losing customers because of the sudden prominence of old news articles that contain errors or were never followed up.”
Hoyt tells the story of one man, a former New York City official named Allen Kraus, who resigned his position back in 1991 after a run-in with a new boss. The resignation was briefly, and incorrectly, tied to a fraud investigation that was going on at the same time in his office. The Times published stories about the affair, including one with the headline “A Welfare Official Denies He Resigned Because of Inquiry” – and that headline now appears at the top of the results you get if you google Kraus’s name. Kraus is, with good reason, unhappy that his good name is, sixteen years after the fact, again being tarnished.
Many other people now find themselves in similar predicaments, and they are contacting the Times (and, one assumes, other papers and magazines) and asking that the offending stories be removed from the archives. The Times, of course, has routinely refused such requests, not wanting to get into the business of rewriting the historical record. Deleting the articles, one of the paper’s editors told Hoyt, would be “like airbrushing Trotsky out of the Kremlin picture.”
But if the Times is using search-engine-optimization techniques to push articles toward the top of search-engine results, does it have any ethical obligation to ensure that old errors, distortions, or omissions in its reporting don’t blight people’s current reputations? Times editors are discussing the problem, writes Hoyt, and in some cases the paper has added corrections to old stories when proof of an error has been supplied.
The Times’s predicament highlights a broader issue about the web’s tenacious but malleable memory. Hoyt touches on this issue in his article:
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, … thinks newspapers, including The Times, should program their archives to “forget” some information, just as humans do. Through the ages, humans have generally remembered the important stuff and forgotten the trivial, he said. The computer age has turned that upside down. Now, everything lasts forever, whether it is insignificant or important, ancient or recent, complete or overtaken by events. Following Mayer-Schönberger’s logic, The Times could program some items, like news briefs, which generate a surprising number of the complaints, to expire, at least for wide public access, in a relatively short time. Articles of larger significance could be assigned longer lives, or last forever.
With search engine optimization – or SEO, as it’s commonly known – news organizations and other companies are actively manipulating the Web’s memory. They’re programming the Web to “remember” stuff that might otherwise have become obscure by becoming harder to find. So if we are programming the Web to remember, should we also be programming it to forget – not by expunging information, but by encouraging certain information to drift, so to speak, to the back of the Web’s mind?