The value choice and online traces

November 30, 2006

I’m a big fan of transparency and open, archived, accountable communication and conversations on the Internet. I’m also in favour of maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of personal data and giving people control over their own data and deciding over where, when and how they appear. And today, I had to make a value choice between these two.

There’s a lot of discussion online about how we essentially “live our life online” with all the youtubes and web2.0 type of things and leave traces all over the place without really thinking about it. It’s possible to construct wonderful lengthy essays on this full of vague content at best, or absolutely nothing at worst. So I haven’t really plugged in to the discussion because I don’t think I’ve had much to say. However, I believe in real-life stories, and so here’s today’s real-life story.

I received the following e-mail that speaks pretty much for itself. I’ve removed the personal details and references as I don’t want to reference the exact link in question and don’t want to be part of the problem, instead of the solution. It refers to comments on a pretty visible and public blog that I edit.

Hello Jaanus!
I wonder if you could possibly help me with something. Back on X, there was a discussion on X online: In it, the user X posted a nasty comment about me on X: (comment of how the person who emailed me spammed others with Skype chat messages with ads for some service)
While I can, in hindsight, understand why he was annoyed to receive my message, I really resent being bashed like that in a public forum. I had simply found a product that I thought was really exciting and my boyfriend recommended that I contact a few people who were currently online to see if any of them wanted to hear about it. I sent that message to a few people and then I kind of forgot about the whole thing.
However, now, when anyone googles my name, X, this is the third entry that pops up. This is really damaging professionally, as I am now job hunting in X and several potential employers have mentioned this incident. I regret sending the message – I should have thought about how I would feel if some random stranger simply skyped me out of nowhere with what appears to be a sales message, but this is now a permanent stain on my reputation for simply being enthusiastic about a product and wanting to share it.
I would really appreciate it if you could remove that particular comment, or at least remove my user name and ID from the discussion so that his point still stands but I no longer have to suffer the negative consequences on my career and personal life. It’s been up there for over a year now, and I think the punishment has far outweighed the crime at this stage.

Now… I had a choice. Should I remove that comment altogether? Should I declare it “intact” and say that you assume responsibility for your past deeds forever? Or should I just edit out personal details?

At first and in today’s spam-filled world, it would be easy to declare that spammers deserve no mercy and should be hanged by all means possible as a warning to others. If you ever do something wrong and disturb others, it should be out there for others to not repeat.

On the other hand, I always try think about the full picture. What if it was myself, or someone I know, who faced a similar problem job-hunting? Also, does it do any good to the world by keeping that thing up there? Does anyone read it at all, apart from potential employers googling their future staff?

I ended up deciding to remove the personal details but keep the story up, as the person suggested. Until, that is, I found out that this page was actually a stale article no longer in our database and not linked from anywhere, and so I could no longer edit itm, but I had to remove the whole thing altogether. (Which is even a greater testimony to Google’s power – even if the story is not linked from anywhere, but was at one point, no human may read it, but Google still indexes it.) The original article still exists, but was moved on a different site. During the moving process, stale copies were left a the old location, and that’s what Google and the employers picked up.

I don’t know the person that e-mailed me. Maybe he or she was a professional spammer and only did this to keep her record clean. But there’s one thing I do know – if I ever was in the same situation, this is how I would like to be treated. I’d like to have a second chance. And since no one probably gets to that article by means of normal navigation for reasons explained above, I don’t think I did a disservice to the world. The information wasn’t that valuable and was available elsewhere, there wasn’t really nothing to fight for to insist to keep it up, and I don’t want to assume the responsibility by potentially screwing up someone’s career and life by refusing to remove a silly little stale piece of the Internet.

What do you think? Did I do the right thing? What would you have done?