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The Ghost of Internet Past

May 29, 2009 _ 13:47 / Digital Nation Team / comments (0)

Earlier this month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a story on former student journalists who have had articles they wrote for college newspapers used against them after they graduated. Many student papers now maintain extensive online archives, so old articles can be found with a simple Google search. This has disturbed and worried many former student writers to the point that they are petitioning their old newspapers to take down or hide the articles.

In one case, a white-supremacist group criticized a current reporter for the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania because of an article she wrote while attending Penn State University which denounced the "hook-up culture" on campus. The reporter asked Penn State's The Daily Collegian to hide the article from search results, but the editor refused.

"I'm an education reporter, so I do a lot with schools and kids," Ms. Dobo said. "It just didn't make me look like a professional."

Professional journalists aren't the only ones who have faced embarrassment from their old writing. In another case, a former student opinion editor asked that his columns on politics, wars, and economic policy be removed from the archives because he had joined the Marines and didn't want his comrades to know his political leanings. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "many college papers report similar incidents."

While student papers grapple with balancing the journalistic responsibility of maintaining a public record and the individual concerns of former writers, there is a larger point at issue. The Internet itself is archived in a number of different ways, whether by Google or other organizations like the Internet Archive. BBC reported last week on a Cambridge University study that found photographs posted to many social-networking sites can still be found even after the user has deleted them. Long story short, if you post something to the Internet, you should be prepared for it to stay there.

As Jared Newman wrote in his post "What Happens On The Internet Stays On The Internet (Duh)" on Technologizer:

In the end, though, the Internet is far too vast for people to demand retractions for everything that doesn't sit well in retrospect. If someone really wants to dig up dirt on you, they'll find it anyway.
Bottom line? Whether you're a professional writer, commenter or occasional forum poster who doesn't use an alias, be willing to stand by your writing for as long as the Internet exists, or be ready to explain why those words are no longer relevant. Otherwise, don't write.

There's no shortage of stories about embarrassing online photos costing people job opportunities. A 2007 survey by PEW found 47% of all teens who go online post photos, and 21% of those never restrict access to the images they upload. The number of teens who post photos online has surely gone up since 2007, and while PEW says that "just" 21% of teens who don't restrict access, that's still one in five. Moreover, controlling access to your own photos doesn't prevent someone else from posting ignominious photos of you. With improving face-recognition technology, simply untagging yourself from undesirable photos may not keep others from finding you.

I wonder if in another 10 or 20 years anyone will be able to run for public office without humiliating writing or photos emerging from the Internet? Then again, with expectations of privacy slowly shrinking, perhaps what is now considered scandalous will soon cease to be politically damaging.

Do you have a story of embarrassing photos or content you posted on the Internet coming back to haunt you? Share it with Stories from Your Digital Nation.

-Jeff

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posted February 2, 2010

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