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‘Unpublishing,’ Untrue Data and You

Who Should/Could/Would Correct the Internet?

By Christopher Adams

A surge in requests to take down untrue or unflattering personal data from the internet has left news media, academics and privacy experts to determine when a removal plea is about empathy, embarrassment or an infringement of rights—especially when the inaccurate information might damage lives.

This is the unfolding world of “unpublishing,” a movement that includes “Ban the Box” supporters, who want to strike criminal history questions from employment applications, and those calling for the immediate implementation of industry standard removal policies across mass media. 

One strong proponent is Deborah Dwyer, a former journalist who served on a newspaper’s unpublishing committee, evaluating formal requests to remove content. Dwyer went on to study the ethics and practicalities of unpublishing and in April launched a website “that provides newsrooms with resources to shape their unpublishing policies.”

Dwyer said the primary driver for unpublishing requests was the “crime/employment situation” and that the lack of consistent policies were holding back the use of unpublishing to “level the playing field.”

“It’s a long and still-evolving battle,” Dwyer told Digital Privacy News

Especially now that criminal records are ubiquitous on the internet and used in ways never imagined in the first days of the mugshot.”

‘Rewriting the Past’

Dwyer said the urgent calls for unpublishing were hindered by confusion and mixed motivations.

“Some [organizations] may agree to erase information—let’s say, an arrest report—outright. Some may be willing to de-index the content from search engines,” she said. 

“Others may be willing to remove the person’s identifying information, yet leave the reporting untouched. Each of those has to be weighed on its own merits.” 

Andy Schotz, managing editor of the Bethesda Beat in Maryland and a member of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the existence of awkward digital information on the internet was not much of a case for removal—with some exceptions. 

“If somebody were to call and say, ‘I don’t like that this shows up every time my name is Googled,’ that’s one thing,” he told DPN.

“But it would be another to say, ‘There is somebody who is looking for me and is dangerous and this is putting me in jeopardy.’ I see that as different.”

The Boston Globe said it would consider each situation individually and take measures to ensure the privacy of the people in its stories, which could include withdrawing the article from Google or republishing it with new information.

“We are not in the business of rewriting the past, but we don’t want to stand in the way of a regular person’s ability to craft their future,” The Globe said on its website. 

Shelf-life Stigma

Unpublishing, in Dwyer’s words, is “the act of deleting factual content that has been previously published online in response to an external request prompted by personal motivations such as embarrassment or privacy concerns.”

That easily identifiable scenario is complicated by studies that show the adverse impact of negative digital information—such as mugshots—on applications for housing, employment or loans.

In 2020, the San Francisco Police Department terminated the release of mugshots except in situations related to imminent danger. The SFPD findings were alarming.

“This policy emerges from compelling research suggesting that the widespread publication of police booking photos in the news and on social media creates an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias and vastly overstates the propensity of black and brown men to engage in criminal behavior,” said Chief of Police William Scott in a press statement. 

More major news organizations have taken notice. The Houston Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee, along with many Gannett papers, have eliminated their mugshot sections, according to the Nieman Lab, a journalism advocacy group.

Cleveland.com in partnership with the Plain Dealer implemented a Right to be Forgotten policy that allows those who committed nonviolent crimes to request the removal of their names from stories upon proof of a legal expungement.   

‘Obscurity’ or Privacy?

The logistics of unpublishing every request upon evaluation would be daunting on any platform. The process of updating news across media might remain in the realm of theory—if it weren’t so serious.

In 2020, journalist Marcela Kunova described the range of potential unpublishing requests: “It could be from a young person haunted by a silly but highly SEO-friendly mishap from years ago now struggling to apply for university or a job. Or maybe a reader with mental health issues made more severe because of a published story.”

Schotz, the journalism ethics analyst, said “newsrooms have a responsibility to be fair in what they post.” He said the absence of reported outcomes in crime reporting was a major gap in journalism. 

“If you’re going to post arrests, you should have some type of commitment that whenever we post the arrests, we’re going to try to find out the outcome—and that is just not done,” he said. 

“What you get is the charges, the allegations and what the police said. What’s the other side? A lot of times, we don’t even try.”

Even Dwyer, the unpublishing advocate, concedes that requests to alter existing online information is not a violation to the right to privacy. 

“Privacy describes the act of disclosing information not publicly known. That doesn’t characterize what’s happening when information is ‘published’ in reverse,” Dwyer said. 

For Dwyer, a more accurate term to describe the relationship between unpublishing and privacy would be “obscurity,” adding that the goal was to increase the concealment of information, not to eliminate it.

“Potentially,” she said, “it would make it more difficult to find within seconds on Google.” 

Christopher Adams is a Texas writer. 

Sources:

  • https://www.journalism.co.uk/news/unpublishing-who-decides-what-news-should-last-forever-/s2/a766559/
  • https://www.niemanlab.org/2021/01/is-unpublishing-old-crime-stories-orwellian-or-empathetic-the-boston-globe-is-offering-past-story-subjects-a-fresh-start/
  • https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/705880#_i34 “The Unintended Consequences of “Ban the Box”: Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories Are Hidden,” Jennifer Doleac and Benjamin Hansen (2019)
  • https://www.sanfranciscopolice.org/news/sfpd-chief-bill-scott-ends-release-most-booking-photos-1
  • National Employment Law Project (NELP), a New York-based nonprofit employment policy organization. https://www.nelp.org/publication/ban-the-box-fair-chance-hiring-state-and-local-guide/
  • https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2020/04/15/483264/expunging-clearing-criminal-records/