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“Delete my comment”

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:

Hello,

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.

Best regards,
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.

{ 15 } Comments

  1. billy | September 30, 2010 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    In some ways, I reckon people should “own” their words. (eg it would suck if you could somehow turn a profit from someone’s comments on your blog; does this content become “yours” now I put it “here”?)

    OTOH the internet is basically the wild west in many ways, and often people are commenting across countries/legal jurisdictions, and much is unclear. (The pirate bay’s (hilarious, and problematic) attitude to legal correspondence springs to mind.) The business related aspect of it throws a new dimension – active brand management online is going to become a bigger thing in the future.

    What is the norm? Many blogging platforms and forums I have used provide the option for commenters to delete or edit their comments. Is this less prevalent now?

    But yeah what the hell anything can be overanalysed.
    Offering the right to respond/modify the comment with a followup to clarify or contextualise or whatever seems reasonable in practice.

  2. chuck | September 30, 2010 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    You should take it as a sign of your enormous internet following that you have randoms e-mailing you to take stuff off your site. You must register high enough on internet search engines to worry folk in the way that some will always worry with indelible info on the internet… I’m just damn curious to read the comment in question and try and make sense of some of the context for this. You wanna let us in on the post/comment. Come on!

  3. chuck | September 30, 2010 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    oh and btw, does your indelible internet cache have a copy of the original pigphone? or was that phonepig? anyways, I was quite fond of that doodle, and seem to have misplaced it in the hands of the internet which at present won’t regurgitate it for me.

  4. Stephen Judd | September 30, 2010 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure I’d be quite so severe, although I see your point. I’d be inclined to remove the comment but replace it with some text that says “the author of the comment that was here has asked for it to be removed.”

  5. Stephen Judd | September 30, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    And on further thought, I am uncomfortable with the idea of the permanent record. Even our criminal justice system wipes your record after a few years of good behaviour. Must we be haunted by words we regret years later, no matter what? That’s one harsh rule you have there.

  6. morgue | September 30, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I’m not entirely sure I’m in the right on this. Stephen, your suggestion of replacing it with other text is a useful one.

  7. Joel Pitt | September 30, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I got asked recently to remove someone’s name from a tracklisting of songs I played at a festival. Yes the guy was the original writer of the song, but his reasoning was that he wanted to clean up the images associated with his name (for grad school or something) and didn’t like the festival photo that came up.

    I ignored it, since I am not a human search optimiser.

  8. Pearce | September 30, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I think that there should be a weighing-up of circumstances.

    If somebody makes a hot-headed comment on the spur of the moment and regrets it, then I’d have no problem with deleting their comment.

    If somebody is undertaking a systematic campaign to erase themselves from the public sphere years after the fact, and hires a dodgy company to do this for them, I’d be less sympathetic.

    I don’t believe anyone “owns” their words per se, except in an intellectual property kind of way. I think that once you have said something in a public sphere it becomes public property.

    I do understand the whole thing about the mistakes of the past blah blah blah. But let’s take an example – let’s say a Mayoral candidate wanted to erase all the racist statements they’d made on the Internet while they were a non-entity. Wouldn’t you want to know about that stuff before you decided whether to vote for them?

    In any case your entire blog is archived elsewhere, whether you like it or not. For example:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20080803061625/http://www.additiverich.com/morgue/

    This is why I had no issue at all with my old blog going offline – if anyone is really determined to read it, they can.

    Two related questions:

    Should George Lucas be able to erase the old versions of his movies and replace them with new ones? After all, they’re his movies.

    Also, what’s your take on the David Garrett thing?

  9. china shop | September 30, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I have said stupid (and/or ungrammatical) stuff in blog comments in the past and emailed the blogger and they’ve deleted it for me. I appreciated that. (On LJ, you can delete your own comments at will.)

    I think if it’s an offensive comment and/or it’s spawned a discussion or consciousness-raising effort or so on, then yeah, it needs to stay for context, but I don’t see why you’d have a broad-brush policy of leaving stuff up, personally.

  10. china shop | September 30, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    ETA: Or maybe it depends on the nature of the blog/comment? I guess I think of my LJ as more like a conversation in a cafe where anyone can come by, but it’s still informal and friendly, and less like a public forum. I don’t know.

  11. morgue | September 30, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the thoughts you guys.

    In this specific case, the post was me on the attack about a business and the mindset its advertising promoted.

    The comment (and I’m still not going to link from it) was a reply basically saying “here’s my perspective on what I’m doing here”.

    Subsequent conversation happened, and further questions, which were answered in another comment. I said thank you, everyone was satisfied that communication was achieved.

    So I don’t feel the pressure to remove the comment on grounds of it saying stupid or offensive stuff; it didn’t.

    (I do worry about the bigger picture though, hence all those hypotheticals.)

    I suspect I’m looking for a clear rule, but I’m not sure there is one to be found (at least, not a useful one). I suspect the reason I’m looking for a clear rule is that this situation just seems weird and inexplicable. Like, *why* would you want this comment to be removed, leaving my attack on you unanswered? That page gets daily visits from people googling the person or the business; they’re still gonna come and see all the negative stuff.

    Just, y’know, weird.

  12. pighone | September 30, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    No clear rule exists (just like the phonepig) but in this very specific case, I’d urge you to hold your current stance. Those comments need to remain.

  13. Adrian Parker | September 30, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Keep it up. In the UK at least, you “own” the comment as you are the publisher. If they sue someone, its gonna be you. 🙂

  14. Pearce | October 1, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Pig Hone?

  15. pigphone | October 1, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Pearce, I’d just woken up after a night shift, so you were lucky to even get pighone! It was of course meant to include a p, as in pig-p-hone (without hyphens) and as such should not be read as an attempt to sharpen a pig.