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IP: Fw: Every word on the Internet is recorded for ALL time

From: Jon Roland <[email protected]>
Subject: IP: Fw: Every word on the Internet is recorded for ALL time
Date: Mon, 12 Oct 1998 17:09:43 -0800
To: "C.Bryson Hull" <[email protected]>, [email protected]

  From: "Adolph V. Stankus" <[email protected]>
  Subject: Every word on the Internet is recorded for ALL time 
  Date: Mon, 12 Oct 1998 15:13:34 -0700 
  To: A Message For You <[email protected]>


Washington Post, Sunday, October 11, 1998; Page C01

Your Past Is Your Future, Web-Wise By Joseph D. Lasica

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.-Our past now follows us as never before. For
centuries, refugees sailed the Atlantic to start new lives. Easterners
pulled up stakes and went west to California. Today, however, reinvention
comes less easily and second chances seem more remote. You may leave town,
but your electronic shadow stays behind, as anyone who has ventured onto the
Internet well knows.

We often view the Internet as a communication medium or an
information-retrieval tool, but it's also a powerful archiving medium that
takes snapshots of our digital lives--which can be stored forever.

It's not just official documents or consumer profiles about us that are
being collected, but the very essence of our daily online existence: Our
political opinions, prejudices, religious beliefs, sexual tastes and
personal quirks are all becoming part of an immense media goop that is
congealing into a permanent public record. What is different about the
digital archiving phenomenon is that our beliefs, habits and indiscretions
are being preserved for anyone to see--friends, relatives, rivals, lovers,
neighbors, bosses, landlords, and even obsessed stalkers.

Take all those ordinary Web pages that many of us have created in a burst of
enthusiasm with the new medium. People assume that their home pages
disappear once they pull the plug. Not necessarily. Sure, browsers and
search engines give you a "404: File Not Found" message when you call up
outdated Web pages. But those pages live on in other electronic nooks and
crannies. Since 1986, the Internet Archive, a kind of digital warehouse, has
been trolling the Web and hoarding everything it comes across--text, images,
sound clips. Every two months, it scoops up the entire Web and stores the
results on its virtual shelves. It has preserved my expired site, and it may
well have yours.

Similarly, postings to the Internet's 33,000 news groups may fall off the
edge of Usenet after a week or so, but they live on in databases such as
Deja News and the Internet Archive. Marie Coady, a freelance writer in
Woburn, Mass., was appalled to discover that her posts to online-news, a
small, cozy listserv of 1,350 news professionals, was available to anyone
through dozens of search engines on the Web. "I consider it an invasion of
privacy to have words typed in response to a query chiseled in stone," she
said. "In light of our litigious society, it could be dangerous to post any
message at all."

Many moderators post occasional notices about a list's public archiving
policy. But not all do, and few users read the fine print, anyway. "The odd
thing is, we perceive the Net as a conversation and not as public record,
and it turns out to be public record to a larger extent than people are
aware of," said Bruce Schneier, a cryptography consultant and co-editor of
"The Electronic Privacy Papers," a 1997 book. "You can easily imagine in 20
years a candidate being asked about a conversation he had in a chat room
while he was in college. We're becoming a world where everything is

Beyond the question of informed consent lie larger questions: Should all of
this electronic flotsam and jetsam be archived in the first place? What are
the consequences for us if our digital footprints survive indefinitely? Who
should decide whether they do survive?

The answers are hardly comforting, especially for those given to strong
displays of emotion or opinion online. "We're now entering an era where tens
of millions of people are speaking on the record without any understanding
of what it means to speak on the record, and that's certainly
unprecedented," says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy
Information Center in Washington. "It is suddenly becoming impossible to
escape your past."
Your children and grandchildren not yet born will be able to reconstruct a
record of your digital life--not just the good stuff but also the
best-forgotten postings to alt.sex.fish or rec.nude. The Web shrine you once
erected to an old flame, with its hyperventilating vows of eternal devotion,
may give pause to a new lover in your life. The union solidarity page you
put up at your first job--years before you were bucking for senior
management--may come back to haunt your efforts to get a promotion. And who
would have predicted that your Senate candidacy would go down in flames when
your political opponent uncovered the image-rich homage to porn star Ashlyn
Gere you posted in college?

Most people don't have posterity in mind when they fire off notes or post
Web pages. Observes Schneier: "When you're in college and posting things
online, you're young and immortal and you don't think about the impact your
words will have five minutes from now, much less five, 10 or 20 years down
the road."

We can already see the outlines of this new world. When you apply for a job
in the high-tech sector, there's a fair chance your prospective employer
will use a search engine to scout out your online postings, from late-night
musings to intemperate rants fired off to a political news group. Would an
employer's decision be colored by information that has nothing to do with a
candidate's job qualifications, such as your out-of-the-mainstream religious
beliefs, sexual orientation, HIV status or personal habits? Absolutely, and
without apology. After all, "character" counts, too.

Federal law makes it a crime for agencies to compare most digital
information about U.S. citizens, points out Fred Cate, a law professor at
Indiana University and author of "Privacy in the Information Age." But
nothing prevents private companies or individuals from doing so. Criminal
convictions, driving records, property records and voter registration
records might be available with a few keystrokes.

Should employers, neighbors and descendants not yet born be able to poke
around in the digital attic for information about you?

Cate believes there are good reasons why we shouldn't be so concerned. "It's
the democratizing of Big Brother, and that's not such a bad thing," he says.
"You can find out as much about your boss as he can about you. I'm not
really happy that someone down the hall can follow me and make a database
about me, but that's the way it is in the digital age. If your feelings get
bruised, tough. If the information's true and not distorted, then you're
stuck with the things you said online years ago. I don't see this as a
privacy issue."

Perhaps not in the narrowest sense. But if every online expression becomes
fodder for somebody's professional, personal or political agenda, clearly we
lose certain freedoms of expression in the bargain. Do you really want to
live next door to Big Brother, even a more democratic one? Sobel says, "If
you define privacy as the right of individuals to control information about
themselves--as we do--then mega-archiving systems clearly raise significant
privacy issues. These systems convert every passing thought and
contemporaneous musing into a permanent, retrievable record--without, in
many cases, the knowledge or consent of the creator."

Even Brewster Kahle, who founded the nonprofit Internet Archive
(www.archive.org) and its commercial offshoot, Alexa Internet (www.aorg),
says, "There are some tricky issues here. A lot of this material is public,
but is it really meant to endure?"

What Kahle is doing is nothing less than astonishing. Alexa's 32 employees,
working in a century-old building in San Francisco's Presidio, sends out
"spiders" to crawl the Web and Usenet and store the text, video and audio on
a digital jukebox tape drive. It takes about two months to capture all 300
million publicly accessible Web pages. So far they've scooped up 10
terabytes of content, or 10 trillion bytes.

Kahle says he launched his project because "we need to preserve our digital
heritage. Unless we start saving it, every passing day we're losing the
record of one of the great turning points in human history." His Internet
Archive and Alexa have drawn widespread praise from academics, historians
and Net luminaries concerned that the Web's pioneer days may soon become
irretrievably lost. For researchers and scholars, it's a field day. For the
rest of us, it's a mixed blessing.

Sobel points out that individuals can't even prevent private indiscretions
from winding up as part of the Internet's global voyeurism machine. "I just
got a phone call from a distraught mother whose 16-year-old daughter's
ex-boyfriend posted nude photos of her on the Web. The photos were
consensual when they were taken. So suddenly it's part of the public domain,
and even if the mother persuades him to take them down, he may no longer
have control over how long this stuff is out there. This teenage girl may
have to live with that for the rest of her life."

Kahle offers another example: "The president's personal home page is
probably in our archives now--the person who'll become president in 20 or 30
years. You know that he or she is the kind of person who already has a Web
page up in college."

Are we condemned, then, to a future where journalists will pore over every
online college-age musing of a prospective president? It appears that way.
"I'm still struggling with the issues raised by this," Sobel says. "We need
a public debate to redefine the concepts of what should be private and
public. Should anyone be able to type your name into a search engine and
come up with public records about your private life? What good are laws that
expunge a crime from your record if the old records remain accessible to
anyone on the Net? What about information that's misleading, inaccurate, or
that you had no idea was out there in cyberspace?"

Kahle is well aware of the debate, and he's working with legal experts,
historians and privacy advocates to determine the best way to make archived
material available. "I used to be very oriented toward privacy, trying to
keep track of who knows what about me," he said. "I've become less fanatical
about it, because I find that it's more valuable to be found than for me to
be obscure. For those who don't want to be found, we should let them be."

One may well ask: Do we have that option anymore? As the Net becomes
ubiquitous, its underlying essence of interconnectedness and community come
with a price: the loss of anonymity. We are being drawn forcibly,
inexorably, into the global town square.
That is no reason to avoid the Internet (as if we could!). It is becoming
inextricably woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. As it should be,
for the Net is a gift, connecting us with like-minded individuals around the
world and allowing us to interact in soul-stirring ways. But we need to be
aware that our digital footprints are permanent ones.

Once, words were spoken and vanished like vapor in the air. No longer. Our
pasts are etched like a tattoo into our digital skins. For better or worse,
we're no longer a people who can reinvent ourselves.

Joseph Lasica writes frequently about new media.

(c) Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

---------------End of Original Message-----------------

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