We got a request this week to take off the internet two stories we’d written about a family involved in a fierce custody battle that straddled two countries a decade ago. The couple had reconciled (which we’d written about, too) and wanted to move on with their lives, but when someone Googles their names or their children’s names, our stories pop up on the first results page.
I can fully understand that the family wants to move beyond this painful episode. But that’s the thing about our past: It’s part of who we are. And it doesn’t go away. Especially in the age of the internet.
When newspapers were print only, personal crises that made the news pages would fade over time, resurrected only by memory or when someone dug out a clipping. But the internet has changed all that. Stories are recorded for all time. Even if someone takes a story down, websites such as the Wayback Machine, whose tentacles continually take snapshots of web pages, can dig it out again.
We are a newspaper of record. We don’t take stories down just because someone doesn’t like them. If we did, our readers could accuse us of being coerced by the rich or powerful or knuckling under to threats, eroding the very foundation of a democratic society: a press that’s free of influence and fear.
We do want to paint a complete picture of the past, however. We are happy to put an editor’s note on top of online crime stories saying a person has been exonerated if he or she provides us with proof, as we did for a man last month who was arrested on serious marijuana charges that were later expunged. And our “Emergency Services,” a daily list of felony arrests, expires off our website after six months in the interest of fairness — we don’t have the resources to follow up on every single arrest to know whether there’s been a conviction.
We strive to be fair about the past, but we will not pretend it didn’t exist.