Preserving web publications for posterity

In the world of online discussions, it is sadly common to see too much control vested in a small group of individuals. This is particularly true in the case of highly controversial topics, such as politics, religion, social morality, climate change and “intelligent design.” I’ve seen many instances of individual censorship and the bad feelings it produces. To me, most forms of censorship are detestable, but many sites go beyond basic censorship when the site owners opt to purge the entire history of contributions from one or more users.

What is even more interesting to me is that sometimes a person elects to purge their own content, and if that content is seen as valuable by others, they can feel equally harmed by the loss. P. Z. Myers today posted a lament on his blog, Pharyngula, about a web site loaded with popular articles on creationism and evolution. The author of this site, Glenn Morton, chose to shut down the entire site for reasons that are evidently complicated, personal, and described here in bewildering detail. Morton’s articles were seen as being particularly impactful in the creation/evolution domain, and the community has expressed some shock at their loss, as if to imply some collective ownership of the writings. Morton, however, is quite clear about his retractions:

I own the copyright on every single page and I want none of them on anyone else’s page and I will defend it.

That is his right, I think, under the laws of most countries. However it raises an important point about the nature of online publication: should one have the right to recall all traces of published content? The answer is certainly not. No traditional publisher has the right to recall books or articles from libraries, and online publishing should not be seen as fundamentally different. Eventually Morton’s writings will enter the public domain whether he likes it or not. The question is whether there will be any extant copies once that event occurs.

This incident emphasizes the importance of specifying a license at the moment content is published. It also exposes the community’s responsibility to pursue such license designations from the author, and to provide archival mirrors consistent with the license terms. If writing is deemed important, it should ideally be syndicated, archived and licensed in such a way that it can never be retracted from public view.

In keeping with my own recommendations, I hereby declare that any and all content published on this blog may be used in accordance with the Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution License 2.0. Enjoy.
-= Post Script =-

A closely correlated problem is when moderators of online fora decide to purge their own archives. In this situation the site owners will have claimed copyright on writings contributed by other users — they can modify or delete them as they see fit. I used to participate in a forum known as Internet Infidels, but a few years ago it was virtually obliterated by internal politics. Here again we see the need to remove control from site operators, specify rights for content contributors and consumers (i.e. forum participants), and protect all data that might be deemed important by participants or posterity. This can perhaps be accomplished by merging the “online forum” concept into distributed social media applications, such as Friendica, Diaspora or something similar. In these distributed systems, information is syndicated among multiple sites, making it more difficult for a small group to seize control the forum. Both Friendica and Diaspora are working on new platforms that will make a user’s identity and content server-independent. From what I can gather, their digital-rights models do not consider the rights of information-consumers (e.g. “My page will only receive posts from others if they agree to license requirement X,Y,Z”), but they are moving in a direction that may finally help us balance the equation of digital copyright and online distribution.

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