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Removing Old Posts That Mention People's Minor Misconduct?

Here's something that I've run into twice myself -- once with this blog and once with a discussion list I run -- and that I imagine will happen even more often to bloggers and other Web site operators. I was wondering what people thought was the right answer here. (This is an ethical issue, not a legal one; it's clear that under these facts the blogger has the discretion to make the choice.)

Say a blogger posts an accurate story -- perhaps based on a news report or a court decision -- that discusses some minor misconduct by some person. The post names that person.

Several years later, the person asks the blogger to remove the post, or to remove the person's name from the post. The person is not a government official or other important figure (at least at that point; one never knows what will happen in the future). The past misconduct was pretty minor, and doesn't suggest that the person will be a serious menace to his friends, neighbors, or others. But it's embarrassing, and the person doesn't like this story coming up whenever the person's name is Googled.

The person asks the blogger, as a favor and not as a legal demand -- which you can assume would be groundless in any event -- to help out. "I've suffered enough for my minor misbehavior," the person says or implies; "please help me start afresh with my new friends, acquaintances, and business partners." (In practice, in many such situations the person or the person's representative might not be quite so forthright, and might throw in some empty legal bluster, but let's set that aside for now.)

Should the blogger delete the post, or edit out the name? Should the blogger insist on keeping the post (again, assume that it's accurate), on the theory that people shouldn't be able to rewrite history, even the history of an online publication? Is there some sensible in-between position? For instance, say the blogger can change the post so that the name is visible to readers but not findable when Google reindexes the page (I assume that Google will at some point do that), perhaps by rewriting the name using some special characters or other computer tricks. Should the blogger do that?

Again, let me stress that I'm not looking for a First Amendment analysis or other legal analysis. We can assume (in my view, with great confidence) that the blogger would be legally free to make any of these decisions. Let me also set aside the separate question of what a blogger should do if the request comes from an entirely innocent named person, for instance someone who was the victim of a crime, or an innocent bystander. And let me set aside the question of what a blogger should do if the blogger believes the reported misconduct was quite serious, and that the person is a continuing threat of some sort to others. The question is what a decent blogger ought to do when someone wants this sort of help in lowering the public profile of the person's past minor misconduct.

paul lukasiak (mail):
I'd edit out his name... although I doubt it would do much good.
9.11.2008 1:59pm
a knight (mail) (www):
There's nothing wrong with removing the name. If the blogger has not been a control freak and blocked the Internet Archives' spidering of the blog, the data is still recoverable for the true researcher. A note added to the blog post, dating the name blanking and the reason for it being done, would not be a bad idea though.
9.11.2008 2:00pm
Will Lewis (mail) (www):
Blogger is suzerain of the blog and the commenters. S/he can do what ever s/he damn well pleases, including but not limited to reposting the offending post at a later time if the person subsequently grinds their gears. A philosopher king blogger would probably remove the name, though.
9.11.2008 2:00pm
smitty1e:
Is the tragedy of the Information Age the loss of the "do over"?
You can edit the blog, but you can't get the screenshot horses back into the barn.
9.11.2008 2:05pm
Spitzer:
Difficult issue, but given the permanence of the internet, I think editing names or removing posts to protect someone's reputational interest is perfectly appropriate. As others have noted, there may be technical issues with actually removing something if it was archived elsewhere, but I think much that is on the internet - and particularly on blogs - is meant to be temporary in nature, and the permanence of the postings cumulatively undermines personal privacy.
9.11.2008 2:05pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
I think that issues like this are actually by far the most important ones that will be worked out by our generation.

The Internet is different even from the printing press in that gossipy rags eventually are thrown out and disappear from memory. Digital information storage means that (so long as energy is cheap at least) memory does not fade. Search technology puts any information -- no matter how old or obscure -- at your fingertips. We are going to have to get way more sophisticated at making a coherent identity for ourselves out of the hodge podge of good and bad acts that make up our personal social history -- the revisionists among us are going to have a much, much harder time.

According to ancient wisdom, you should give others the same chance to change their attitude and write a new story that you would want for yourself. That would be my guiding ethical principle in situations like this, which are incredibly difficult to decide in the abstract because the individual facts can tip things one way or the other so easily.

As an aside, I recently deleted all of my social network accounts except for my blog because I got uncomofortable with the idea that an institution I don't really know that well or have any control over has complete control over how my identity will be presented 10, 20, even 50 or 100 years from now. I want the chance to change my views, and I think blogging platforms are much better about affording people that opportunity than the social networks. Twitter in particular is really scary in that regard. People use it like their words are disappearing into a void. But everything you write is searchable now. "Every idle word ye speak, you shall give account thereof..."
9.11.2008 2:07pm
mgarbowski:
Mercy is almost never a bad choice in personal situations.
9.11.2008 2:09pm
PLR:
I'd delete the name, and I don't think it's a close question.
9.11.2008 2:09pm
Bill Blank:
Given all the set asides (and because this is such a well-written entry), the need to answer is silly - mean people and nice anal ("the blog must be accurate") will keep the name and nice non-anal people will remove the name.

For me (being a nice person), it depends on if I need to be anal - does the original posting still prove whatever point I was trying to make or is it so moot, so obsolete, that deciding on removing the person's name is the same decision I'd make as to removing the entry.
9.11.2008 2:10pm
Curt Fischer:
I like the idea of replacing the text of the person's name with e.g. an image of their name, so that Google doesn't find it. That way the post is less likely to emerge as a primary hit in response to googling a person's name.

In addition to noting the date and nature of this change on the post, you could also add a statement lauding the person for their subsequent, non-offensive behavior, or for their gracious apology, etc. etc. etc., so that even when web surfers did somehow stumble across the page they'd be exposed to positive information about the person too!
9.11.2008 2:11pm
neurodoc:
First, is the question only about mention of the person's name by the blogger him/herself, or does it also pertain to mention by one of the blog's commenters, who brings the person's name in? I don't know that it makes much difference, but it might be argued that the blogger may exercise more discretion over what he/she introduced than what the commenter introduced?

Yes, why not expunge mention of the person's name, or make then X or John Doe rather than identifying them by their real name, when it is of no great or continuing consequence to anyone other than the individual concerned. Who among us would be happy to be called out on every misstep we had ever taken and have it memorialized and learned of through a simple Google search? (Note, it's been stipulated that "[t]he past misconduct was pretty minor, and doesn't suggest that the person will be a serious menace to his friends, neighbors, or others. But it's embarrassing...") IMO, the "the theory that people shouldn't be able to rewrite history, even the history of an online publication" is arrant nonsense. A fight with one's spouse is "history" only for the couple, except under the most unusual of circumstances (e.g., Hillary beaning Bill with a lamp, if it happened).
9.11.2008 2:12pm
frankcross (mail):
I go against the grain. I'd leave it up, assuming it is accurate. People make mistakes in life, they should be learned from, not expunged.

Now, if this embarrassing story was something really significant, then people deserve to find it. If it was something not very significant, as it sounds, then finding it shouldn't be a big negative. In answer to neurodoc, "I among us." I'm happy to be held accountable for my life, both positive and negative. So the golden rule cuts both ways.

Though I like Curt Fischer's theory fine. Maybe something about google's search elevates the significance of the finding beyond what it deserves.
9.11.2008 2:19pm
T Gracchus (mail):
I think it is fair to rephrase the question as (1) is there a moral duty to accede to the request? I don't think so. Removing the information may be generous or compassionate, but part of those virtues is that they are freely given, not matters of duty in answer to a request. (2) Is there a duty to retain the information unchanged? I can't see how that would hold. Under the circumstances, there is little interest in or importance attached to the information so alteration will not frustrate any significant ends or values. The points can be rephrased in terms of a variety of moral theories; as the problem is defined, the answer is that the blogger (morally) may do as he or she wishes.
9.11.2008 2:21pm
Dave N (mail):
I agree with everyone everyone else. If there is no good reason to leave the identifier, change it to "John Doe" or "Mr. X" and add a qualifying comment along the lines of: "Editor's note--We have changed the name of the person identified in this post because his actual name is irrelevant to the point we were making."
9.11.2008 2:22pm
neurodoc:
BTW, it's different, though not so greatly different, but commenters' posts to this blog have been taken down in the past and not always for good reason, e.g., crossing rhetorical swords with one of the Conspirators without breaching any reasonable rules for these discourses. Then some posts stay and others go, leaving a very misleading record of the "conversation." For someone who posts under their real name or otherwise makes themselves identifiable, that may be embarrassing, and unfairly so. Professor Volokh?
9.11.2008 2:22pm
Oren:
robots.txt -- learn how to use it.
9.11.2008 2:23pm
neurodoc:
T Gracchus: "(1) is there a moral duty to accede to the request? I don't think so."

Is compassion a moral "duty," or only a nice thing?
9.11.2008 2:26pm
Wallace (mail):
This is an interesting byproduct of the digital age. As other commentators have noted, the permanence of the cached name and incident is problematic in a day and age where names are routinely googled. (see: autoadmit)

I would take down the name, contact the person, and network. Think of it as a "I did you a favor, and good luck" type of deal, unless the offense was serious.

The question is whether, hypothetically, the worst can happen. Let's say you take down the name of someone for a minor offense, and, two weeks later, they commit a much more serious civil one. The plaintiff sues that someone and says, "I googled the person's name before (blank), but nothing came up. Later, I realized that someone had taken down information that would have caused me to act otherwise." Can the remover of the incident be held responsible?
9.11.2008 2:26pm
Pragmaticist:
Eugene, if it were you, would you think the blogger should remove your name?
9.11.2008 2:27pm
Aultimer:
Our culture includes the concept of a clean slate, at least after one pays their "debt to society" for even major misconduct. In the hypothetical, I'd be inclined to take the subject's word that they've suffered enough, so the moral thing appears to be complying with the request.
9.11.2008 2:28pm
Malvolio:
Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.
-- Penn Gillette
No, as a moral point, I don't think the blogger should remove the record of the old misdeed (even it were technically feasible).

It's somewhat inconvenient to the reformed miscreant to make the same argument to each new friend, acquaintance, potential employer, &c. -- it was a long time ago, I've changed, yadda, yadda -- that he is now making to the blogger, but well, don't do that crime if you can't do the time.

Once, my employer had to decide to hire for a fairly senior position a man who, a Google search told us, caused a controversy while still a college student by staging a vehemently homophobic protest at the home of a pro-gay professor. We decided to hire the guy anyway and eventually learned two things: he was gay himself (and had held the protest to make some sort of free-speech point we didn't understand) and he was exactly the kind of jerk you'd expect to be protesting in front of people's houses.
9.11.2008 2:30pm
Tax Lawyer:
Is there (or should there be) a categorical answer? I can imagine a sliding scale based on considerations such as:

1. The severity of the conduct (by setting aside some questions, you cabin your inquiry somewhat; even so, I think your question leaves open a relatively broad swathe of conduct).

2. The type of misconduct -- Are we talking about public urination or instead something that calls into question a personal quality such as honesty which is not, in most adults, reformable.

3. The relationship between the conduct in question and the point the blogger was trying to make. Assuming the post was not simply straightforward reporting of the incident, but was instead mentioned as part of a larger argument -- is the person's identity crucial to the blogger's point? If so, leave it up (perhaps with some sort of exculpatory commentary added). if not, take it down.

I'm not certain I've exhausted the relevant considerations, but am certain I've exhausted the time I have to devote to the question.

Bottom line: either callis defensible, and I wouldn't set a categorical rule.
9.11.2008 2:30pm
Poster:
Are you trying to argue that the general public 'deserves' to know this information if it has been publically posted and that in taking it down you would be doing a disservice to society? That's the only justification I could think of for refusing to show basic human kindness and I think it's a weak one at that.
9.11.2008 2:32pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I would ask what is the value of keeping the name in the post? If it is not a public figure, what does anyone gain by having that name available in the post?
9.11.2008 2:35pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Very interesting -- thanks very much for the comments, and I look forward to more. A couple of quick responses:

Oren: I want nearly all of the blog archives, and nearly all of that page, indexed; the question is what to do about this one post on that page. Can robots.txt really let me block indexing of that small part of that page?

Pragmaticist: I thought of that, but it didn't help much. Sure, I'd want the blogger to remove my name, but I want lots of things that I'm not entitled to, even as a matter of mercy or ethics rather than legal right. If the question is whether I'd feel the blogger ought to remove my name, I have conflicting thoughts on the subject, which is why I posted this post.
9.11.2008 2:35pm
arthur (mail):
If you don't want to remove something it's simple enough to googleproof by adding slashmarks in the middle of words. This is also useful to gossip about people in the present time and reduce the risk that they'll find out, at least via search engines. (E.g. "Eu/gene Vol/okh's lecturing to 150 sudetns on con law right now, with his fly wide open.")
9.11.2008 2:35pm
theobromophile (www):
If I were technologically proficient enough to replace the name with an image of the name that is not searchable, I would do so. Barring that, I would either remove the name or retain the first and last initials (similar to what courts do in cases involving minors).

It is not so much re-writing history as balancing history. Few of the good things that people do ever make the internet, or the news, but anything bad tends to get attention.
9.11.2008 2:37pm
Scote (mail):
Blogs are minor news organs. Removing a factual post about someone is editing history.

If the transgression is really so "minor" then it shouldn't matter if you keep it. The implication is that the transgression isn't actually so minor since it is having an impact on their life sufficient to get them to ask you to remove the post.

We all have things we regret. The answer is to try and do fewer regrettable things not to hope that you can have them expurgated at a later date.

However, I would hold Volokh up as a site that should resist requests for expurgation, whereas small personal blogs, facebook sites, live journal, etc--sites that are less of a news record, well, those are a different matter, though the line is a bit blurry.

If your site functionally acts like a news site--and I think VC does--then you should treat your archives accordingly and resist requests to alter history retroactively through expurgation of accurate factual information.
9.11.2008 2:37pm
some dude:
Should never had used real names to begin with.
9.11.2008 2:38pm
zippypinhead:
Good question. It's a personal moral decision for the blogger, if one assumes the individual's identity is not a matter of continuing public interest in the blogger's reasoned view. Absent some reason to the contrary, why not honor the request? At the risk of starting a riot, I'd go so far as to argue that the "christian" [note the small 'c' in an attempt to avoid theological flamewars] thing to do in the spirit of human redemption is to honor the request to remove the name.

Although that's probably not going to entirely solve the person's problem, given the availability of internet archives and even Google caching. I've often wondered whether sites like The Smoking Gun, which seems to specialize in publishing goofy police reports (not records of conviction), are ultimately going to destroy careers years from now.

Maybe the ultimate lesson is you need to assume that on the Internet, everybody knows you're a dog, and can sniff out every fire hydrants you've ever watered?
9.11.2008 2:44pm
neurodoc:
neurodoc: "Who among us would be happy to be called out on every misstep we had ever taken and have it memorialized and learned of through a simple Google search?"

frankcross: "In answer to neurodoc, 'I among us.' I'm happy to be held accountable for my life, both positive and negative. So the golden rule cuts both ways."

You really "would be happy to be called on every misstep (you) had ever taken and have it memorialized" and be easily discoverable? If so, then I think you are very exceptional, because I believe few would like to be so open to scrutiny. Indeed, it raises the specter of the Orwellian. (see Michael F. Martin @ 1:07 PM)

[An aside: why doesn't the VC number posts to make it easier to reference and follow threads? Some blogs do, e.g., www.flyertalk.com, and I think it very helpful.]
9.11.2008 2:48pm
Norman Bates (mail):
Reminds me of this story from the "Arabian Nights" http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/fart.html#historicfart
9.11.2008 2:48pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
The upshot seems to agree with me: cut out the name, if not the whole incident. I propose a new category of behaviors. Legal, ethical, and moral will now be supplemented by "not being a jerk". Your first case, not keeping the post on the grounds that history is sacrosanct, counts as "being a jerk".
9.11.2008 2:53pm
Moshe (mail):
I think there is absolutely no question that the name should be removed, and the fact of its causing someone embarrassment for so long should make the blog-poster reconsider posting negative things (even minor ones) about others to begin with. Is the need to express the thought in the blog so great that it's worth hurting someone else?

Not all true things need to be expressed publicly - there ought to be a good reason, some sort of clear positive benefit, for posting something damaging to someone else. If you made the judgement that it was a good idea to post to begin with and now you find that it is hurting someone else, think carefully about how much value there is in keeping that information up. Could the point not have been made without the name?

Free speech is a wonderful right, but that doesn't obliterate our responsibility to be considerate of others - even people who engage in misconduct.
9.11.2008 2:57pm
neurodoc:
If the question is whether I'd feel the blogger ought to remove my name, I have conflicting thoughts on the subject, which is why I posted this post.
What is the strongest argument you can make for refusing all requests to remove names? Is it the "theory that people shouldn't be able to rewrite history"?
9.11.2008 2:58pm
Anon Y. Mous:
Assuming you decide to comply with the request, would it really matter? If Google is used to search for our reformed individual's name, your post will still show up. If you took the post down, the searcher will get a 404 clicking the now dead link. So, they click the cached link, and there it is. If you just redacted the name, now the searcher will have the experience of searching for a name and getting your name-redacted version of your post, presumably with your note explaining the redaction. Sounds like a pretty good tipoff that the searcher might want to go hit Google cache to verify that the name redacted was the one they were looking for.
9.11.2008 2:59pm
CDU (mail) (www):
This may not quite be responsive to Eugene's question, but I think that society is going to have to change how it looks at these things. We are going to reach a point where every job candidate has something negative posted about them somewhere, where everyone running for president has pictures of them doing stupid stuff during their college years on MySpace or Facebook, etc. Asking bloggers and sites to remove content on an individual basis is not really a solution. Things are distributed far too widely and archived and cached in too many places for this to really work. Heck, we're probably to the point where the average user could save every single website they visit forever without worrying about storage space.

I think we're just going to have to embrace the idea that people change, and they're not necessarily the same sort of person that they were then.

One technical solution to this might be better sort-by-date searching (which also could have prevented the recent United Airlines bankruptcy rumor). It would be nice to see what a job candidate has been doing lately, rather than the stupid picture of them from high school, even if the latter has more google juice.
9.11.2008 3:05pm
Sarah Wells (mail):
Really, there is no single answer. I suggest following your own judgement in any individual case. There will not be two cases exactly the same.
9.11.2008 3:06pm
Angus Lander (mail):
Ex hypothesi the name is not valuable, and its continued availability harms someone who (again, ex hypothesi) doesn't deserve to be harmed (although he may once have deserved to be harmed).

In other cases where the name is worthless, but its continued availability harms someone who doesn't deserve to be harmed it is (by virtue of those facts alone) uncontroversial that the name should be expunged. (For example: it is shoddy not to use an alias when recounting on the Internet a story involving someone's doing something embarrassing.) Analogously, the same holds in answer to Eugene's question; the right thing to do is to expunge the name.
9.11.2008 3:09pm
zippypinhead:
Here's a real-world example to mull over: Currently on The Smoking Gun is a happy little piece about an arrest for the gruesome murder of a kitten, complete with police report, mug shots, and even a pic of what I guess is supposed to be a frightened kitty. One of the perps is 19. All this is based on an arrest, not a conviction.

Assume hypothetically that the 19-year old is acquitted. Perhaps even because he didn't do it. If this post lives on, 20 years from now it could well still be following the kid around, royally fouling up job prospects and a host of other things in his life.

In the year 2028 should TSG remove the kid's name and photo if requested? It's "news." It's based on a public record. But the truth of the allegations in the public record is in doubt in light of the acquittal, the alleged crime was long ago and arguably not very significant in the grand scheme of things. And the continuing reputational harm appears quite plausible.

Interesting question. This is an issue we'll be seeing more of in the future. In the pre-Internet age one would have had to do hours of research on newspaper microfilm in the library to find such a story from decades ago. Now it takes seconds from any computer terminal, PDA or cell phone.
9.11.2008 3:16pm
luagha:
I would require a small fee for my time and effort. It's on the same order as why one should never give out 'free puppies' - even a small payment substantially raises the bar of responsibility.

Someone in the aforementioned situation who is trying to be responsible can make the small payment. Someone who cannot wants something for free that they don't deserve.
9.11.2008 3:17pm
Mike& (mail):
I've been asked that once myself. I absolutely removed the person's name.

What happened: There was a swearing match in court between a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. The swearing lawyer-prosecutor had just graduated law school. As it turns out, the lawyer had a good reason (well, to the extent anyone has a good reason) to be upset, and thus cussed at the defense lawyer.

Years later he was looking for a job, and when people Googled his name, my blog was the first hit. It was causing him a lot of grief. Not because it was totally bad. After he told the story, most people understood his behavior.

Anyhow, the guy sent me a very polite e-mail. He said, "I know you have the right to keep it up. But I am looking for a job, and re-telling this story to every interview is distracting the job interview. Would you please edit the item."

Of course, I did.
9.11.2008 3:17pm
Simon P:
A few things.

I think it's important to recognize the value you derive from using the person's real name. Anyone searching for that person's name will find this blog; that increases your traffic; traffic is something you value. That specific value may not be great, but forgetting that it's there allows you to view the matter as though you're a detached, disinterested reporter of newsworthy, true information.

Suppose this person offers to pay you some sum in order to remove his name. Is there any value for which you would do so?

I think the most troubling part of leaving posts like this up is that adopting "leave it up" as the default rule automatically causes more harm to people with unusual names than it does to people with more common names. My real name, for example, is fairly uncommon, so that when you google it within quotation marks, not one hit is false -- every hit, in other words, is actually me. A person with a less unusual name, however, will find their misconduct pushed several pages down and will be practically undiscoverable by anyone not knowing what to look for. Is that consistent with your notion of what's "fair" in posting their misconduct in the first place?
9.11.2008 3:18pm
FWB (mail):
Honor
Integrity
Do unto others...
Love thy neighbor...
Walk a mile in my shoes...
Skeletons in the closet...
Judge not...
Who made you God?

How would YOU want the issue decided if the shoe was on the other foot?

Isn't the posting of anything on the NET with other than one's real name (alias) a violation of federal statutes?
9.11.2008 3:19pm
Obvious (mail):
The issue is further complicated because in real life, the minor issue may have initially been perceived as a major issue and commented on as such. For example, a person could be indicted on several felonies; blogs comment; news reports go into gory detail. Months later, the case is converted to a small misdemeanor and the person given only a warning (IANAL) since it was a first offense. Yet Googling the name will show discussion of multiple felonies...
9.11.2008 3:24pm
Karl Lembke (mail) (www):
(Not having read the comments that precede this, ) I'd say whether the post is removed or not depends heavily on why the post was put up in the first place.

You seem to have decided the person named has not behaved in such a way that people need to be warned about his behavior. If the only reason for the post is to call attention to the person and the fact that he (or she) behaved in a certain way, it begins to look like gossip. I am neither Christian nor Jewish, but I believe both religions declare gossip a sin for good and valid reasons. How close to that line does your post get?

I think a good test would be, can you redact the names and other personal identifying information and still have a post that's of interest to your readers? I can imagine good reasons for writing a post about a person's embarrassing behavior in order to:
Provide a cautionary tale,
Illustrate a quirk of the law,
Provide a specific example of a general problem,
Etc.
All of these would still apply even if the the example applied to John Doe or Jane Buck. In this case, I'd say redact the name and obscure identifying information. (Sending requests to search engines to purge their caches is up to the person who made the request of you, IMHO.) If there is nothing of substance left after the personal information is removed, I'd have to wonder why there's a post in the first place.
9.11.2008 3:25pm
Rich B. (mail):
My non-unique (but not 'John Smith' common) name, when Googled, gives web hits for articles (1) a gay rights advocate; (2) a right-wing partisan and obsessive fan of the Hobbit; and (3) a software engineer. I am none of those people.

I often wonder if people I send a resume to ever Google me, and assume I am one of those three people.

I wonder if the answer to "will you remove my name" is different if it comes from me, and not my identically named Tolkien-obsessed conservative.
9.11.2008 3:37pm
Karl Lembke (mail) (www):
Oren:

robots.txt -- learn how to use it.

One of the recurring problems at Little Green Footballs seems to be that not all robots can (or care to) read.
9.11.2008 3:38pm
TerrencePhilip:
I have a blog, and once posted about a court decision I thought was incorrect, and predicted it would be reversed. One of the litigants contacted me and suggested I had slandered him by saying he should've lost (he had been accused of misconduct in the litigation but won at the intermediate court level). He sent me several emails, to which I replied that if he could show me anything inaccurate in my post I'd change or delete it, which he couldn't. Apparently he couldn't talk his lawyer into suing me. He then told me he would report me to the bar disciplinary authorities. I told him to go ahead- but then I called the bar folks, who were noncommittal about whether it was something that could be investigated by them (I'm pretty sure it's outside their jurisdiction, or that if they tried to do it I could win a lawsuit to stop them- but do I really want to do all that? Plus, I've never had a bar complaint and would like to keep that streak going.)

He never followed through with the bar, but eventually I just got tired of hearing from the guy and told him I would delete the post. It wasn't something that got a lot of traffic or contained any earth-shattering legal insights anyway. After that, he was nice and told me that my post had made it difficult for him to find another job because it came up on Google searches. Honestly, I had not thought about that (though the bigger problem for him was the news stories mentioning his name.) He also told me his case had settled before the supreme court could rule on it but that they hadn't notified the court after applying for cert! If he had just been nice about it in the beginning, I probably would've deleted it for him then and there.
9.11.2008 3:41pm
Karl Lembke (mail) (www):
One solution that has been mentioned a few times has been replacing the name with a graphic image, or adding extra characters to keep it from matching a Google search. My caveat has to do with the fact that we're talking about the case where people are searching for information about a person years down the road.

The methods of obscuring a name work now. As pattern-recognition and pattern-matching software continue to improve, which they will barring a collapse of civilization, information hidden in this way will become increasingly accessible. Right now, a CAPCHA is (mostly) sufficient to prove that the person entering a comment on a post really is a human. Before too long, software will be advanced enough that computers will be better at solving CAPCHAs than humans are. Then life will be interesting.
9.11.2008 3:50pm
Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
On compassion and mercy for past misdeeds:

There are two types of request for compassion and mercy. One is that a particular person not hold a past deed against me: "Please, I did wrong, but it was in my past and I've paid the price. It shouldn't impact your decision of whether to hire/do business with/date me now."

This seems to be more like the second type, a request to assist a person in concealing a past misdeed out of mercy, asking person A to make that decision on behalf of persons B, C, D, etc. "Persons B, C, and D ought not consider my past misdeed, because I have atoned for it. Please do not publicize it for that reason."

I'm sympathetic to the first argument. But I'm inclined to let B, C, and D make up their own mind. They may disagree with my assessment of whether the past misdeed reflects permanently on the person's character or suitability for whatever is before them.
9.11.2008 3:56pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
I would guess it depends on what you mean by "minor" misconduct. I would probably leave the name up if it involved a violent or deceptive act, but take it down if it were something else such as a victimless offense, or a non-criminal act, such as adultery.
9.11.2008 3:56pm
JohnO (mail):
If they were nice about it, I'd delete the name. If they weren't, I'd probably still delete the name but would think about it a little longer.
9.11.2008 4:01pm
wilkeson (mail):
I would probably base my decision on how the person asked the question. If they asked in a humble manor I would be more inclined to remove it than if they sent an email in ALL CAPS filled with threats and legal mumbo-jumbo.

Of course that might not be a very ethical way to go about it, as it's very eye-for-an-eye.
9.11.2008 4:01pm
Jerry Mimsy (www):
I get such a request a couple of times a year, usually in regards to public postings someone made in the 1994-1998 era (Usenet's high point) that I've archived; usually it's because they once expressed an opinion on the drug war and don't want their name to show up any more attached to that opinion when they go through their next job search; once it was because someone had asked for help following an arrest; again, they didn't want it coming up during a job search.

If the posting itself is completely pointless now, I'll remove it. If the posting is still useful, I'll remove their name.

So far, the requests have all been polite. Often they're also embarrassed--they still hold the opinion but just don't want to have to explain it (and assume that sometimes they won't even be given the chance to do so).
9.11.2008 4:07pm
Roger Schlafly (www):
I once removed a name based on such a request. If I had thought that there were some point to keeping the name, then I might have considered keeping the name, but there wasn't.
9.11.2008 4:19pm
frankcross (mail):
Neurodoc, I just don't see how it is Orwellian. Now, it would be Orwellian for every aspect of one's private life to be exposed eternally, but this involves no privacy issues, the information was already public. I don't mind being accountable for mistakes. Should we just expunge Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright, because it was embarrassing? Bury the information about John McCain's divorce, because it might be embarrassing? Even if they weren't public figures, I can't see why.
9.11.2008 4:19pm
twocanpete (mail) (www):
My own rule of thumb is to try and never blog anything negative about a person who is a private citizen and hasn't committed some horrible crime.
9.11.2008 4:22pm
Joe Kristan (www):
I've had this happen. I posted about a guy who tried to get out of a hunting violation - shooting out of season or something - by claiming he was an IRS agent. I made sport of the guy, who ended up facing charges of impersonating a federal officer. When his release from prison was approaching, his wife called and asked - very nicely and apologetically - that I take it down so he wouldn't see the post when he googled himself. I took it down, rather than just blocking the name.

It's easy and fun to mock people who do dumb things on the public record. It's harder to know, when to back off, or at least leave the name out of the post, but sometimes it's the right thing to do.
9.11.2008 4:30pm
Mr. X (www):
I agree with everyone everyone else. If there is no good reason to leave the identifier, change it to "John Doe" or "Mr. X" and add a qualifying comment along the lines of: "Editor's note--We have changed the name of the person identified in this post because his actual name is irrelevant to the point we were making."


I think it's fine to delete the name, but would appreciate it if you didn't replace it with my pseudonym. I've done enough embarrassing things without needing credit for the mistakes of others.
9.11.2008 4:34pm
ASlyJD (mail):
I'll wade in here with a point about unusual names. I have an uncommon first name and a all but unheard of last name. Yet my name in quotes Googled first returns a Wisconsin family psychologist who was quoted about a law allowing the hunting of feral cats. Luckily, potential employers seem to have not identified me with her.

More annoying is the fallout from editorial columns I wrote for my undergraduate newspaper. One of my better columns was picked up by another website and is used as part of a definition for a political philosophy. I have shifted political opinions dramatically, but a Google search does not support that idea. (On the plus side, it's rather cool to see my writing quoted next to JFK.)

I certainly hope that as we go forward into the "Archived" age, employers will understand and sympathize with youthful postings.
9.11.2008 4:38pm
Tom Hanna (www):
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow."

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

I'm not sure how this is even a close call. I think all the most sensible ethical systems are based, at root, on some instance of the Golden Rule.
9.11.2008 4:39pm
Ken Arromdee:
There are two types of request for compassion and mercy. One is that a particular person not hold a past deed against me: "Please, I did wrong, but it was in my past and I've paid the price. It shouldn't impact your decision of whether to hire/do business with/date me now."

This seems to be more like the second type, a request to assist a person in concealing a past misdeed out of mercy


This assumes that the only things which reflect poorly on someone are misdeeds. This isn't true. The classic example is an arrest for something which the person didn't do and was found innocent of. They may have performed no misdeed at all, yet this report could keep them from getting a job.

Also, there are things which aren't misdeeds but can easily be taken out of context as such.

And then there are things which aren't misdeeds, but which make people targets anyway. What if you mention that you're an X and years later you're applying for a job at a company which is prejudiced against X's? And you'd rather work for someone who hates you, than not being able to eat or pay rent?
9.11.2008 4:45pm
Kenvee:
I think it would depend on the purpose of your original post. If the person and his minor misdeed was the whole point of it, I would leave it up. If I thought it was important enough to mention in the first place, then I'd keep the name. Depending on the politeness of the request (and how busy I was), I would do what I could to make it non-Googleable.

If the post was on another issue entirely and person's name and misdeed came up sort of tangetially, then I'd remove it.

I think everyone has some stuff floating around online. I know I do from when I first got online and didn't really understand that this stuff would be following me around decades later! (I think earlier generations are just as happy that their teenage crushes and star crushes don't live on forever!) But I think the whole idea of trying to sanitize our past and pretend it didn't happen is futile and silly. It happened, and you can never bury something completely.
9.11.2008 4:48pm
darelf:
I would remove the entire post, because I am a nice person. I also would never ask such a favor for myself. To me, there is great value in shame.
9.11.2008 4:55pm
Chris Hundt (www):
A few responses to some of the technical points that have been raised:

Yes, robots.txt or META tags can be used to prevent the page from being indexed, but as EV correctly guessed, that can't be used on the individual-word level.

There are ways to obfuscate the text; my preferred method would be javascript. You could very easily write a script that prints the word one letter at a time, and a search engine is unlikely to figure out what's going on. And, unlike an image, to a reader it would be indistinguishable from the normal way of producing text. (They could select it, increase the font size, etc.)

One thing that may have been overlooked, though: removing the person's name from the page may not prevent the page from showing up when you search for the person. For example, if people have frequently linked to the page while writing about the person then search engines are often smart enough to figure out that the page is about her even if it doesn't mention her by name.

So to be sure that you are not poisoning their search results, you really need to tell search engines to drop the page from their indexes.
9.11.2008 5:10pm
Happyshooter:
If they have a halfway good reason for asking, do the right thing and take their names down.
9.11.2008 5:18pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
Winston Smith votes "yes"
9.11.2008 5:24pm
Archon (mail):
I used to advise a student group who had a website that was quite critical of several university administrators. Nothing big - just disputes on tuition, student representation, fee usage, etc.

About five years after a controversy one of the administrators involved (who had left the university for unrelated reasons) call to ask that several post be taken down. He was applying for some jobs outside of academe and they were coming up as the first google hit.

The students took down that portion of the site most out of mercy. The guy was leaving academe and the controversy was quite moderate with most of the writings not applicable anymore unless you were involved in it at the time.

I vote for mercy most of the time.
9.11.2008 5:30pm
Ohismith (mail):
My brother sued his employer 11 years ago and now he can't get a job because his attorney still uses the case to advertise for more plaintiffs.
As a commissioned salesman in IT, my brother made a huge sale resulting in the first $1million commission at the company. The company paid far less and my brother sued. (I told him at the time, if you sue, you will NEVER work again.) He won a jury verdict on liability with a huge LA law firm, and they settled the damages in the mid 7 figures. He took 1/2 that, LALaw took the other 1/2, and put the case on their website. Now whenever he makes a job inquiry, word travels back to him that the company won't touch him because of his lawsuit. He's asked the atty to take it off the website, but that's hard to do.
9.11.2008 5:35pm
Waldensian (mail):
I think this is a question in search of an actual moral dilemma.

To me it's easy -- remove the name. Track no man to his undeserved hurt.
9.11.2008 5:37pm
Larry Sheldon:
I would evaluate each case--did it involve shop-lifting a lipstick, or driving a car off a bridge and letting someone die?

Depending on that evaluation, I might delete it completely, I might obliterate then name and move the page (so old "indexes" will 404), I might add a comment explaining that the item is old and no longer newsworthy, or I might do nothing at all.

It depends.
9.11.2008 5:43pm
Guest12345:
Where is the line on who can ask that their name be removed? What if the person asking to have their name removed is Scooter Libby? Are you going to edit 20% of your posts from last year? I know some will make the argument that finding pages regarding Scooter is the point of searching for information about the event. But the same position can be taken by those who are looking for Wanda Thompson as well. Or is it another case of different criteria for the elites than for the hoi polloi.
9.11.2008 5:44pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
This issue comes up pretty frequently with the Civilian Gun Self-Defense Blog. Since these entries are always an excerpt from a news report or an official report, there is absolutely no valid claim to a right to privacy. Since we aren't taking any position about the accuracy of the news report or official finding, it can't qualify as libel.

Uusually it is the next of kin of someone who was shot and killed while attacking someone. Usually they insist that it was all an elaborate conspiracy by the D.A., the police, eyewitnesses, the medical examiner, and so on to frame the dearly departed. I ask them to provide me anything that would substantiate that claim, and I will happily post it. I do not think that I have ever received such evidence.

In one case, the person who contacted me was a guy who had been shot by his father, according to the newspaper accounts, while forcing entry into his parents' home. The shooting victim told me that the police were about to indict his father, etc. I ended up hearing from the father, who also wanted it removed--and provided me with documents showing that the son was actually convicted of several charges as a result of this incident.

As much as I was tempted to end the embarrassment, it wasn't like the newspaper accounts were going away. We left it up.
9.11.2008 5:50pm
Dan Weber (www):
A few years ago, a student found someone on the Internet to write her paper, and never paid. The person put up a blog post about it. She begged him to take it down, and he changed her last name to Krishna:

Laura Krishna Is A Plagiarist

If the Internet is good at anything, it's forming a mob, and a very righteous one formed to sully her name. (Possibly correctly.) But this all made me think of that.
9.11.2008 5:54pm
Simon P:
Ohismith's concrete example suggests to me that nuisance law might pose a useful analogue to this problem.

Do our notions of the First Amendment and the free speech values we associate with it inadequately account for the harms that free speech can entail? It seems to me that most legal writing on free speech assumes either that free speech causes no harm, that any harms free speech does cause may be resolved via self-help, or that free speech is the "greater good" (though not necessarily greater or lesser than the harm). Do any of these assumptions hold true in the context of a true but harmful web-post? I'm not sure that any of them do.

What would a print analogy to this situation look like? If you got into the habit of printing off this post on a daily basis and sent it to every single employer in the country at no cost, as part of a service that compiled all such submissions and made them nearly costless to peruse, would that start to look more like free speech or more like harassment?
9.11.2008 5:58pm
pauldom:
Once I blogged about an encounter with a neighbor--I was trying to be friendly, she was EXTREMELY and gratuitously rude. I returned home and smoked out a narrative of the encounter that used her name. About 45 mins later, when I had cooled down, I rewrote that entry with a pseudonym. But during that 45 mins., a blog that people actually read had linked to that entry, using her name. She googled herself, found that link, went to my page, recognized herself (I'd removed identifying info but quoted the mean things she had said) and then she was the angry one.

She printed out pages from my blog where I had written various observations about our neighborhood (nothing angry or critical, just "day in the life" stuff, no identifying info unless you already knew I was the author and that you were the remarkable guy who had wallpapered his garage or whatever) and put them in mailboxes to warn neighbors that they had no privacy anymore because I was blogging about them, and that none of them should ever talk to me again because they could expect to find all their words republished. Thus began a neighborhood uproar that still hurts four years later. I did ask the popular blogger to remove the name from his blog--he seemed reluctant but did so out of sympathy anyway.

Now, I never blog about anyone other than my own family or a public figure, and I use pseudonyms for family members. I've considered using a pseudonym for myself, but having my name on the blog is an everpresent reminder that not all audiences will be charitable.

I do think you should remove the name to be kind.
9.11.2008 6:04pm
DCH (www):
Keep in mind that regardless of whether or not a post is removed, the information is out there -- already archived in Google and in various other internet archives. Many times people will unpublish content only to find that it is still accessible via Google.

Should you remove the content that another has politely requested?

This question is symptomatic of our time -- a reluctant entry into an Era of Transparency. As we are becoming more and more connected "Privacy of Action" our ability to conceal what we have done and what we have said is becoming increasingly diminished. Once things are out there, they are out there, and they are out there for what is essentially forever. We have achieved a strange sort of immortality but this goes unnoticed as we are too busy worrying about the negative consequences of past statements haunting us to realize this fact. However, the reality remains that every action is now capable of generating a "Social Record" that is accessible to all. In the past as we only had a one-way media, this level of attention was applied only to Public Figures. Now everyone can become a public figure in an instant.

As to the moral question itself, I'll take a few approaches.

Utilitarianism. It is easy, just evaluate the real benefit vs. the cost of removing this from his or her "Social Record". Is what they said really important? Is it something others should know? Is it something embarrassing and unimportant? What do you think the effect would be on the world and the people in it if you took this off? Decide based on that.

Categorical Imperative. Can we accept as a universal rule to alter our records when other people request it? If we removed everything everyone requested our records would be unreliable and would not serve as records and would be illegitimate (I jumped a few steps in the argument, I think the blanks can be filled in).

Virtue Ethics. By deleting their comment you discourage the virtues of prudence, honesty, responsibility, and diligence. However, you exemplify the virtue of forgiveness. Weigh accordingly. In my opinion virtue ethics goes towards not removing.

All in all, I think this is a fun area where the blogger gets to exemplify their own moral compass, but I think we are heading in a direction where deleting will get increasingly more difficult.
9.11.2008 6:40pm
zippypinhead:
Clayton E. Cramer wrote:
This issue comes up pretty frequently with the Civilian Gun Self-Defense Blog. Since these entries are always an excerpt from a news report or an official report, there is absolutely no valid claim to a right to privacy. Since we aren't taking any position about the accuracy of the news report or official finding, it can't qualify as libel.

Uusually it is the next of kin of someone who was shot and killed while attacking someone....
Clayton, we know you run a reputable blog covering a sensitive topic. It's not quite the question Professor Volokh asked, but how would you handle requests to delete the names of crime VICTIMS who successfully defended themselves?

Legally you might be right about privacy rights, but it would seem the equities are a bit different for victims. We've all seen reports of crime victims, and even citizens who merely report crimes, later being targeted for revenge by crooks' friends/relatives/conspirators. And frankly, I'd prefer that the universe not know I've got a CCW even if I did have to use a weapon for self-defense (you'll surely recall the uproar in Roanoake VA and a few other places where press-with-an-agenda published concealed carry permit names).

Depending on the circumstances, if I or a family member had to take a legitimate self-defense shot, I might work hard to get my name off the Internet to the greatest extent possible, both at the original news sources and at reporting blogs. Would I be out of luck on your blog?
9.11.2008 6:47pm
Dan Weber (www):
Keep in mind that regardless of whether or not a post is removed, the information is out there -- already archived in Google and in various other internet archives. Many times people will unpublish content only to find that it is still accessible via Google.

The search engines will disappear the information in a few weeks.

It'll still be out there, but it won't be anywhere as easy to find.

I know I've used Internet Archive in my defense, when a company accused me of obtaining a private, custom version of their software. I pointed out that the version number was right on their website, and when they pulled that I was able to point at the Internet Archive records.
9.11.2008 6:47pm
first history:
Not only would I not remove the name I would repost the item.
9.11.2008 6:54pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Depending on the circumstances, if I or a family member had to take a legitimate self-defense shot, I might work hard to get my name off the Internet to the greatest extent possible, both at the original news sources and at reporting blogs. Would I be out of luck on your blog?
I've never had a victim make that request*, and I would certainly honor it. If someone wants to find out that information, they can go to the original source.

*With the singular exception of the father/son gunfight that I mentioned, and leaving out the family connection would have made the account a bit misleading. Even worse, they had the same name, just Sr. and Jr.
9.11.2008 6:55pm
tsotha:
Whether or not you remove that post it's still "out there" for access by search engines. So while it may be a good opportunity for a bout of conscience-wrestling, you can't stop the signal, man.
9.11.2008 7:10pm
Da -- er, just (mail):
I don't like historical revisionism (even of a blog), but that said, if you want to delete or edit it, do so (I'm assuming non-public figures or even if public genuinely minor, etc.)(aside: the legal standard for who is a public figure for "malice" purposes is overbroad, in my view — Richard Jewell was a public figure because he gave ONE interview?).

Situations are so fact-dependent that one can't make hard-and-fast personal rules. Someone's drunk and is arresting for urinating in a cemetery, I don't care that they want it private. It was the anniversary of their wife's death and they're really broken up I'm much more understanding and would lean towards privacy/non-searchability. It was the anniversary of their wife's death in a situation where that person was driving drunk, suddenly it's not so sympathetic that they're drunk at the grave...etc.

Now all that said (written) if someone wants to explain why/what happened, I think there might be more of an ethical imperative to e.g. reopen comments on an old blog posting so they could do so, or to otherwise append their statement if they wanted.

Here's a different situation, my name is neither common nor uncommon, there are a number of people with the same name who come up in Google searches, one who went to the same university as me a few years later, etc. If one of those other people with the same name does something wrong and blogs write about it, I have no reason to argue that the blog should take it down (perhaps provide more details to specify which "DF" it is, but not remove the information) — so how much less "right" do I have to have information edited if I am actually the person in question?
9.11.2008 7:35pm
DCH (www):
Dan:

That is true.

I do think that we are heading towards a time when that will no longer be true, in that content will be available essentially forever no matter what is done to it.

I also think that the evolution of Concept Search will continue to erode at privacy of action. However, I recognize that my opinions are short term science fictions/speculation .
9.11.2008 7:46pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I wonder how this could escalate? Aren't there lots of blogs where a comment can be placed naming someone? Maybe it's true; maybe it isn't. I'd say the notion that blogs represent history fails to consider the idea that the history may be false.
9.11.2008 8:13pm
ohwilleke:
The Internet is forever. Simply editing a post does not make it cease to exist.

I edit my posts from time to time, but simply to correct typographical errors in posts of continuing interest, or to add updates, generally expressly.

Deleting a post to cover up the past seems dishonest to me. FWIW, I am also not a fan of either sealing records (although I do favor measures to relieve people of the collateral legal consequences of their actions) in juvenile or non-juvenile criminal/delinquency cases.
9.11.2008 8:27pm
DCH (www):
I am blogging about that in the near future, If you would like I'll shoot you an email when I post.
9.11.2008 8:33pm
John Robinson (mail):
Do unto others!
9.11.2008 8:46pm
neurodoc:
frankcross: "I just don't see how it is Orwellian."
I said, "Indeed, it raises the specter of the Orwellian." Brian G seems not to be in any doubt about it, citing Winston Smith himself for authority. @ 4:24 PM.

"Now, it would be Orwellian for every aspect of one's private life to be exposed eternally, but this involves no privacy issues, the information was already public."
Once something has appeared on the back page of a small town paper, been mentioned on a blog, or otherwise been made public, it matters not if it hangs out there forever ("exposed eternally"), gets republished, or is otherwise highlighted and amplified? There is nothing more to say about privacy, because like virginity, once lost it can never be restored? I don't think so.

"Should we just expunge Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright, because it was embarrassing? Bury the information about John McCain's divorce, because it might be embarrassing? Even if they weren't public figures, I can't see why."
Hard to imagine more inapt examples. It was stipulated at the outset of this thread that "[t]he past misconduct was pretty minor, and doesn't suggest that the person will be a serious menace to his friends, neighbors, or others. But it's embarrassing..." Whether either Obama's association with Wright or McCain's divorce count as "past misconduct," it's for sure those have proven to be anything but "pretty minor." Partisans maintain that those things tell us something important about what we would be getting in a president, some even arguing it suggests one or the other will turn out to be a serious menace to all of us if they are elected. Were it possible to expunge these details of their records, and clearly it is not, to do so would be to re-write history in the utterly mendacious way of the worst totalitarian regimes. We are talking about nothing like that here.
9.11.2008 9:03pm
pauldom:
I'm not convinced that everything on the internet is always permanent. The blog post that I mentioned above is impossible to find in any version . . . or at least, I've searched and asked other skilled people to search and it hasn't turned up. Perhaps it wasn't online long enough, or my blog isn't trafficked enough, or it is available and I'm not skilled enough to find it. But it definitely doesn't show up in any normal google search.

In the future, online may well become always and forever, but for now, removing a name can make a real difference.
9.11.2008 9:11pm
Gilbert (mail):
The sad fact is that if it has been more than a year, or if the site is a particularly well linked on (like this) removing the name will probably change very little. Still, if you don't remove the name it goes from unlikely to impossible for this person to move past the petty mistakes of their past.

Without any reason not to, remove the name, acknowledge the edit and the reason for it, and wish the person well in trying to get google to clear its cache.
9.11.2008 10:28pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
I think this is only a temporary (few decades) long problem. Fundamentally the problem with this sort of searchable past record is that we find information about others titillating and fun to speculate about while we are rarely forced to consider how others might take incidents from our own past.

Also, while companies might be interested in hiring the best talent available, the people making the actual hiring decisions are primarily incentivized to avoid being held responsible if things turn out badly. So while minor embarrassing information on the web about a job candidate doesn't make them noticeably more likely to be a worse employee but it does make it easier for people to blame whoever hired them if things go bad.

Finally, people are reluctant to come to the defense of someone who was caught smoking drugs or engaging in some other activity that might be frowned upon so their own past indiscretions aren't suspected.

Note, however, all these harms will only last as long as only a minority of people have their embarassing events recorded for posterity on the internet. In fact I think in the long term the record provided by the internet will be a great force for positive change. Some of our worst laws and harmful feelings of moral indignation only persist because we have the incentive to scold those who are found out to protect our own position. Hopefully, we will become a society where people won't punish others for getting caught doing the same things they themselves do.

-----

As for the question I currently would, at a minimum, ensure their name didn't pop up on search engines. While I think this trend is overall a good thing taking the embarrassing info down from search engines after it's already affected them to this degree won't stop the inevitable but it may reduce the suffering along the way.
9.11.2008 11:36pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
As one or two people above noted, the problem is much worse for people like me -- not that anybody has figured out I'm a drug kingpin yet -- than for John Williams; if you find my name, you know it's me.
9.12.2008 12:27am
neurodoc:
Oh, you're that David M. Nieporent?!
9.12.2008 12:49am
David H (mail) (www):
True Path pretty much wrote most of what I am writing about, I think it will be very interesting to see how the world handles its sudden transparency after the minority shift.
9.12.2008 1:24am
a knight (mail) (www):
A few commenters on this thread seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding how search engine caches function. A search engine cache is NOT permanent. A deleted page will eventually no longer be referenced by a search engine, and a changed page will eventually reflect only the most recent version in their cache.

The Internet Archives is an entirely different case. Search engines do not spider its holdings, and there are no public methods to search using normal terms. Locating a record in the Internet Archives, requires at least a general idea of what the URL was, otherwise you are out of luck. Sort of like Google's advanced search method: inurl. I personally consider this to be appropriate.
9.12.2008 5:01am
Splunge:
(1) Why'd you use the person's real name in the first place, in the original post, if it was such trivial misconduct and didn't concern you personally? The word for that is "gossip," or possibly "prurient gossip," since you said the behaviour was embarassing. I'd say your ethical problems started right there.

(2) The problem is transitory. You can only usefully google individuals when very few people are googleable at all, and when very little information in a person's life is googleable. If indeed in the near future everything becomes archived (which is unlikely, but that's a different point), googling with any precision will be a very expensive and time-consuming needle in a haystack process. You type in J. Random Job Applicant and get back hits on all 7000 people in the world with that name, living or dead for the past N years, with about half a million hits (from everything they did) for each. Now it's time to dig out that supercomputer, program up an ingenious natural-language parsing search program, and start hacking away.

Not going to happen. The more information is saved, the harder and more expensive it is to zero in on the exact bit that interests you. And, no, Google, Inc., is not going to do it for you, for free, indefinitely.

(3) The behaviour is also self-limiting in the sense that pauldom illustrates. Since publishing information is nearly zero cost, and, alas, none of us is perfect, if you embarass John Doe, you run the risk of having John Doe take the fairly modest pains it would take to embarass or annoy you in return. I suspect most people are smart enough to realize this, and will be relatively circumspect in how readily they embarass others by name for purely practical reasons of self-preservation. If nothing else, John Doe can blog about your obnoxious posting of gossip about him, and refusal to edit it, and if indeed most people think you're being a jerk, you've now got problems much like his own. It's true companies don't want to hire guys arrested for stripping naked and peeing on the ex-girlfriend's lawn while drunk, but they also are not likely to want to hire guys who post whatever juicy gossip they happen to learn in their work.

Heck, if I learned that a job applicant had a blog, and posted interesting tidbits about the people he met in his daily life on it, and identified them by name, I'd show him the door. I don't want to end up on his blog, even for entirely innocent reasons.
9.12.2008 5:40am
Public_Defender (mail):
Given your description of the request, it's a no brainer--modify the post with a note that the post has been modified.

You said that the person's name wasn't critical to the message (and how critical was the message of that post anyway?), the person's behavior wasn't dangerous, and the person asked nicely.

I don't see any value in keeping the person's name on your site. If you deny the request, all you're doing is needlessly inflicting pain on someone who (per your description) doesn't deserve it.

Once the post is modified, the person's name might show up on other searches, but you are no longer inflicting the pain. As time passes, it will be harder and harder for people to find the unmodified post. The unmodified post may effectively disappear.

In the end, just follow your basic sense of fairness. It may lead you astray now and then, but given that you aren't a court of law, it will probably serve you better than hard-and-fast rules.
9.12.2008 7:23am
rgaye:
It's your blog. Do what feels correct to you based on the circumstances and your knowledge at the time.

If it were me though, I'd probably edit out the name and any info which might identify the person (depending on the story), if I thought it was a legit request.

I would probably do this as a matter of course for any post about a non-public person, when someone else writes about the incident.

If a person writes about themselves, that's a little different, though I might edit it too at their request. People sometimes have remorse at the personal disclosures and information they post, that they shouldn't have.

Other factors would be how much time has passed since posted and I wouldn't let it turn into a housekeeping headache. You've said it has happened twice, which doesn't sound like headache territory yet.... :)

Editing it won't make it go away but over time might make it less easy to find.

OTOH editing it might make one more intent on finding the text of the original post.
9.12.2008 7:54am
Pragmaticist:
Having an uncommon name is a handicap when it comes to this issue. I have a very uncommon name, (the search engines find only me), and therefore information on me can be found in two seconds. Persons with very common names can't be easily identified. So, as a class, people with uncommon names are disadvantaged on this issue compared to people with common names.
9.12.2008 8:13am
a knight (mail) (www):
@ Splunge - I disagree with your assertion #2. It isn't the number of names that is the problem, it is the signal/noise equation in the searching. If the person is a job applicant, there are many other qualifiers to add into the search besides the name: place and date of birth, locations of past residences, schools attended, SS#, references, etc. There are far more avenues of searching than just "Googling". That term in this context implies self-limitations, and use of just one or a few major web search engines. Searching is a type of science, albeit an arcane science, but there are some who are adepts.

As more information is saved, it does not become harder to zero in on the desired data, it becomes easier if one understands the methods exposed by the information saved. This is especially so in this era of permeable databases. The trick is to get the data points to align.
9.12.2008 9:09am
zippypinhead:
I think Public_Defender got it about right
Given your description of the request, it's a no brainer--modify the post with a note that the post has been modified. You said that the person's name wasn't critical to the message (and how critical was the message of that post anyway?), the person's behavior wasn't dangerous, and the person asked nicely.... If you deny the request, all you're doing is needlessly inflicting pain on someone who (per your description) doesn't deserve it.
You've done the morally right thing, while not being deceptive about the edit.

Here's an irony: In this and so many other aspects of life, the [former?] slogan of a certain Internet company whose main product plays a role in this discussion is probably a good rule of thumb when confronted with an ethical dilemna: "don't be evil."
9.12.2008 10:28am
Gary Imhoff (mail) (www):
I agree with Scote's minority opinion, above, from personal experience with my web site. The question is biased by the emphasis on a minor transgression, unlikely to be repeated, by a private citizen, but let me give a slightly different example. My wife and I run a good government web site focused on local city government in Washington, DC. At one point our city's Inspector General issued a lengthy report on illegal political fundraising activities by a now-former mayor (not Marion Barry, for those to whom that name immediately leapt to mind). That mayor's Chief of Staff was involved in the fundraising. The IG's public report omitted all names; we obtained the uncensored report, with names, and published it, which led to extensive press coverage.

Last year, the former Chief of Staff asked my wife and me to remove his name or to remove the complete IG's report from our web site; he said that it was hindering his job search. Even though we both like him and think he is basically a nice man, we refused. He misused his government position, and to erase that information would be to erase the public record of something that we believe should be on record. Our decision was made easier by the fact that a thorough researcher would find the same information by searching Washington newspaper archives, but if our website were the only record of the IG's uncensored report, it would be even more important to retain it.

Maybe that makes me uncharitable or anal in some others' opinions, but I think it makes me responsible.
9.12.2008 1:53pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
It may be futile to do anyway. Once you put someone's name out there, the Internet can act like a giant echo chamber, and your article may be picked up in countless other places. For example, someone cited the "Laura K. Krishna is Plagiarist" blog entry as an example where the blogger showed mercy and changed her last name. Yet, I found the person's real last name just a few google hits below, on an entry on another blog commenting on the original entry. So, Ms. "Krishna's" request for mercy was futile. Maybe it would be better if she just posted her own blog and recounted her own version of the events.
9.12.2008 3:53pm
diane levin (www):
I am surprised by the commenters who would show no mercy. Has none of them ever made a mistake? Doubtful. In this case, where the individual is not a public figure, the transgression was a minor one, and the request was made nicely, I see nothing wrong with showing a little compassion and human decency. (I might, however, ask the person who made the request to "pay it forward" and show mercy should they in turn face a similar request.)
9.12.2008 4:08pm
Ursus Maritimus:
Keep the name, but add a note to the post that you personally believe that he has atoned/changed/whatever and that you therefore think it should be discounted.

"Our culture includes the concept of a clean slate, at least after one pays their "debt to society" for even major misconduct."

Really? So when felons have paid their debt to society they can go to the gun-shop and splurge?

As long as 16 year old boys who have sex with their 15 year old girlfriends are placed on a sexual predator register for the rest of their life, and lose the right to bear arms, the right to vote, the right to work as a police officer, or the right to become a lawyer or an officer, I posit that our culture really don't believe in the 'clean slate' at all.
9.12.2008 5:57pm
Public_Defender (mail):
Gary Imhoff,

Volokh is not talking about a public figure in a corruption scandal. He's talking about an average Joe who did something stupid that happened to catch Volokh's attention and make it onto a very popular (and highly rated in the search engines) blog. Volokh was clear that the stupid mistake does not indicate that the person posed a risk to society.
9.12.2008 7:35pm
12345:
Most of these posts seem to think of this in the context of an employer searching and denying someone a job based on what they found. In this scenario, of course it's easy to side with the person rather than the faceless corporation. But what if you are a parent and are googling your child? Or googling your spouse? Don't you think that information would be pertinent to how you deal with those people and wouldn't you WANT to know what was going on? I don't see how that's any different from the business - the more information people have, the better decisions they'll make. Its when information is hidden that people make uneducated and unfortunate decisions.
9.15.2008 12:24am