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Transcript

Friday, December 18, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Many have observed that time contracts in cyberspace, but it can feel like it also expands indefinitely, especially when it comes to a piece of personal information we'd sooner forget. Should people pay for a cyber mistake forever? How do media outlets respond when someone wants to amend the record and change their personal history? On the Media’s Nazanin Rafsanjani explores the issue, beginning with an unusual funeral that will perhaps become more usual in the years to come.

[HUBBUB IN BACKGROUND]

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Friends and family are gathered here today at a funeral to bid farewell and pay their respects to the memory of a young man they've known for years. But at this funeral, the dearly departed greets them at the door.

PETER: Hello, welcome to my funeral.

WOMAN: Hi.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: This is not a funeral for a person. It’s for a name. Three years ago, a college senior wrote a story for his school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. The topic was a bit risqué. The piece was about:

PETER: My use of Craigslist to look for sex with closeted Harvard jocks. It was a big hit. It’s my number one Google result, of course. But now, you know, three years later, I find that I'd really like to be an elementary school teacher. So I'm really wary of the possibility of that, you know, a 10-year-old kid coming across this, because, you know, if I were, like, in fourth grade I'd be googling my teachers all the time. It’s really nothing I want coming back to haunt me.

[BACKGROUND HUBBUB/MANY VOICES]

MAN: It’s a really good funeral, I think.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: At first, he tried to outrun his Google hits. He registered a domain name. He did other writing, hoping the piece would at least slip down to the second page of search results, but it wouldn't budge. So now he’s legally changing his name. I'll call him Peter. Peter’s 25, and in retrospect it seems clear that writing a tell-all about using the Internet to find anonymous sex may not have been the wisest move. But he was in college, a risk-taking time, plus the piece was witty, honest and discerning. For a writer it might have been the right thing to do. For a teacher, not so much.

PETER: I picture a kid saying, I googled you last night and I found a really funny article or a really weird article. I picture losing my authority, in some ways, you know. I feel like I would have made a joke of myself in front of my students. There’s parents googling. I mean, I guess that’s another huge fear. And even if I were hired by a school that was really understanding and might take the position of, well, you know, he was in college and things happen, I don't really want to put any of my future employers in that position, of having to defend that. I don't want to be a problem or a liability for anyone.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: The name funeral is mostly a happy occasion. People are joking about the absurdity of this whole situation.

PETER: I think I need to change my Facebook profile name.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: But for Peter’s mom, it’s a goodbye to her son’s old name and his identity, at least online.

PETER’S MOTHER: It really is a very painful thing. He’s got nothing to be ashamed of, and somehow he’s sort of fleeing from this story. In this world, that’s – you just can't compartmentalize your life. And I guess this is part of my hope that in years to come that he can reveal his own [LAUGHING] name again. You know, even if he doesn't go by it anymore, at least it'll be sort of public again.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Peter asked The Harvard Crimson several times if they'd take down the story. They declined. They also declined to talk with us for this story. Peter says they told him that removing his piece would set a dangerous precedent. News organizations grapple with this a lot these days, what to do when an article is haunting someone online. Joshua Benton is the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard and the faculty advisor for The Crimson. He can't address Peter’s case specifically because he wasn't there at the time the decisions were made, but he says nowadays everything is on the record, youthful missteps and all.

JOSHUA BENTON: Embarrassment is not a good enough reason for some bit of history to be removed. The idea that someone who knows how to work the system well enough to make the appeal to the right place, that those people would get to control their image, I don't find that very appealing because there are going to be lots of people who don't know how to work that system, and they're the, the ones who are going to still have their youthful indiscretions [LAUGHS] on display forever.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Benton says national newspapers, like The New York Times or Washington Post, set the example for college papers, and they have pretty strict policies against removing an article from the Web. But this problem is so new that news organizations are making up the rules as they go along. Kathy English is the public editor at The Toronto Star. She recently surveyed 110 newspaper editors across North America and found that roughly half had no official policy for a rising number of these requests. English gets one nearly every week. For example, there was a young law student who was briefly arrested.

KATHY ENGLISH: The charges were dropped before they ever came to court, but the media had reported on it. He came to me saying, could you please remove this story, because I'm named here. This is going to affect my chance of getting a job in a lawfirm, this is going to follow me for the rest of my life. We looked at it. What we did was updated the story with a note that says all charges against him were dropped on such-and-such a date before it ever came to court. When I told him that we wouldn't take the story down, he wasn't particularly happy with that. He wanted the story to disappear.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: She says as compelling as these individual cases can be, a news organization has always had a bigger responsibility to the record.

KATHY ENGLISH: To the public good. Newspaper archives have always lived on. Because somebody didn't like a story we didn't go into the library and cut a story off the page and make it disappear. The issue now is it’s so easily accessible to everyone.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Dean Betts is the content director at The Houston Chronicle. He remembers exactly one case in which the newspaper removed a story from the Web, due essentially to what journalists call “source remorse.” The person interviewed regretted it years later.

DEAN BETTS: We had done a story some years back about a street junky, and a reporter spent a lot of time with her and documented many aspects of her life in a very long and complete piece. Some years later, we were contacted by her family, saying, look, we want to talk to you about this story. She has gotten clean, she’s - now has a professional life, and she’s worried that this reporting is going to damage her for the rest of her life, after having given us access at a time where she was very vulnerable and perhaps wasn't exhibiting the best judgment because of her chemical addiction. And, believe me, this is something that came amid hours of discussion and a lot of weighing of the ethical pros and cons before we decided that, yeah, we really should honor this request and, and try to remove this from the Web.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Betts points out that this story was published in the very early days of newspapers online, and that’s why they were able to make it go away, by removing it from their site. Today, even if he were to agree to take down a story, it wouldn't go away.

DEAN BETTS: With Twitter and aggregation sites and everything else that’s out there indexing our content and discussing our content. Maybe we could delete it from our site, but it’s going to be on the Internet forever.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: This isn't just about Google, says Gabriel Stricker, head of search communications there. It’s also about us. We've come to expect access to anything and everything, all the information available all the time.

GABRIEL STRICKER: Trust me, it makes things extremely challenging for us to have such high expectations from users. That process of finding a needle in a haystack, every time we do that, people’s expectations of what other needles and what other haystacks we can surface, those expectations start becoming greater and greater.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Google was founded in 1998. Peter, the guy who’s changing his name, was 14 years old at the time. You could say he’s part of a transitional generation, old enough to remember life pre-Google but young enough to have embraced the Internet before the consequences of over-sharing were clear to anyone. Those who are 14 now, the so-called “digital natives,” will never know a world in which Google doesn't open a window onto the past, and they may understand better that we have very little control over what lives online. Dean Betts of The Houston Chronicle is quite thankful that his college self isn't following him around today.

DEAN BETTS; Because there were things that we did that were just terrible. It’s an unforgiving world right now, and that’s one price that we pay for having such access, unrivaled, unimaginable access to information, because well, my information is part of that, too. Your stuff is not your stuff anymore. You don't own it if it’s on the Web. It’s out there.

[FUNERAL HUBBUB]

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Back at the funeral, a friend is delivering the eulogy for Peter’s name.

MAN: Who among us has not dreamt of starting over, of wiping the slate clean, of artificially absolving ourselves of responsibility for everything we've ever done?

[LAUGHTER] May he lead a timid, uneventful life -

[LAUGHTER] - marked by no accomplishments that anyone would ever care to document online.

[LAUGHTER]

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: A couple of years ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt joked that everyone growing up now should change their name when they're 21. But perhaps there will come a point when we'll all have something awkward or even potentially damaging about us on the Web, and if it’s public for everyone, then maybe we're protected by the crowd, all of us living out our most embarrassing moments, one Google search at a time, in front of one another.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Nazanin Rafsanjani.