Back in July I received an email from someone I didn’t know asking to delete a comment on this blog. The comment dated back several years, to a post where I’d attacked a business, and the owner of the business turned up to argue his perspective (which, I thought, he did with integrity and aplomb, although he didn’t change my mind).
It was a weird email and a weird request and my assumption was that it was a scam. I wrote about it on my livejournal here – pointing out the weirdness. I later tracked down the owner and contacted them to ask if they had authorised this email; they didn’t know about it. So the conclusion was it was some incompetent email-harvesting scam/spam.
Turns out it was for real. I received a followup email today, asking if I’d got their earlier message and asking again to remove the message. I went back to the owner with more info, and this time they confirmed that it was legit, and they’d asked another group to “tidy up a series of internet postings”.
So, leaving aside the weirdness and the unprofessional approach taken by this emailer, I want to consider the request on its face. (It’s why I’m not linking back to the original discussion – who is requesting shouldn’t matter, right?) They asked to remove a comment from an old post. I refused.
My reply was:
First up, I ignored your first message because it looked like spam – you’re using an anonymous gmail address, and gave no sign of any connection to [business owner]. [And more in this vein about how how it was poor communication.]
On to the main point: I’m sorry but I’m not going to remove the comment. I believe in maintaining a complete public record, and indeed I feel a responsibility to do so. The comment is in no way libellous or otherwise legally concerning; indeed, I think [business owner] comes off very well in the exchange.
I would be happy to open up the comments function for the addition of another comment to this post, if that would be of use to you. Adding context or explanation etc. would be welcome. But I will not remove the original comments.
Morgan Davie / From The Morgue
I feel strongly that this is the right approach. I stress that this particular comment conversation was quite innocuous; but the principle of the thing seems dangerous to me.
Am I right, though?
First – who owns the comment that was posted? I don’t exactly have a stated comments policy. It’s on a blog I maintain, was submitted through a process I manage, but it was written by someone else – do they give up rights over their comment as soon as it gets submitted?
Second – should removing past activity on the web ever be okay? What about someone who makes an anti-feminist joke in a comment while young, drunk, and stupid – given the power of google, should that hang over their head the rest of their lives? What if the joke was anti-semitic? What if it was anti-semitic but the commenter convincingly argues that they didn’t understand the racist elements of the joke, they were just repeating it?
In this age of google, where everything we do on the web leaves a trace – must those traces be permanent? Are there no costs to be accounted for, or even mitigated? Obviously my personal view is that the record should be permanent, regardless of the other costs. Am I out of step?
Keen to hear what people have to say. Willpost again if I get further correspondence about this.