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Coming to Grips With An Internet That Never Forgets

Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 29, 2008 as Coming to Grips with an Internet That Never Forgets

Political parties and analysts have been keeping close watch on the role of the Internet throughout the current election campaign.  All parties have beefed up their online presence with countless Facebook groups, YouTube videos, Twitter postings, and specialized websites such as the Conservatives' and the Liberals'  Supporters of specific issues have also been active, led by the now-infamous Culture in Peril online video on the culture funding cuts that have generated more than a half a million views.

While those initiatives have attracted some interest, the most significant Internet effect has not been any particular online video, website or Facebook group.  Instead, it has been the resignation of eight local candidates based on embarrassing or controversial information unearthed online.  

Many observers have blamed the revelations on inadequate vetting processes, yet the reality is that these incidents shine the spotlight on an important but rarely discussed aspect of the Internet. Old blog postings, chat room discussions, or difficult-to-explain videos are captured by search engine databases and lie dormant until an intrepid searcher comes across it.  In other words, the Internet never forgets.

The effect of a technology that never forgets marks a dramatic change in the way that we deal with the past.  Most people have older embarrassing stories or incidents that they would prefer to forget.  Before the emergence of the Internet and cheap data storage, they had little reason to fear that these might come to light.

Today's digital generation will have a much different relationship with their past.  In an always-on environment, videos, photographs, blog postings, and discussion room comments live forever online.  There are certainly great advantages to creating large, personal archives that are immediately accessible with sophisticated search technologies.  However, as the now former election candidates recently learned, there is also great potential for negative consequences.

Candidates for public office may be fair game given the right of voters to fully vet their elected representatives.  But the Internet that never forgets does not stop with politicians.  

The born digital generation enthusiastically posts everything from party photos to their thoughts on the issues of the day.  This content has a "Hotel California" quality to it – you can post it anytime you like, but it never leaves. The postings may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but there is a concern that future employers or academic admissions officers will adopt a different perspective.  

Search engines such as Google are frequently the first place people turn to when they want to learn more about a potential applicant or interviewee.  More sophisticated tools for uncovering blog postings or Facebook entries are now readily available, providing the potential to develop detailed online profiles that may or may not reflect the real person.

Given that people will likely post more rather than less in the coming years, there is a need to reconsider how this online story is interpreted.  The conventional approach might be to take everything at face value, viewing the embarrassing content as reflecting a character fault in the person (for that reason, new services that seek to scrub online postings have begun to emerge).

Companies, schools, and other organizations should resist the temptation to judge based on a years-old blog posting or video, however.  If the cameras are always on, they are bound to catch something that people would prefer be kept private.  Similarly, if social interaction means posting content online, some regrettable comments are sure to follow.  The Internet may never forget, but sometimes we should be willing to.    
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

One Comment

  1. Alfred Nonnerel Mouse says:

    social networking and comments
    Great article, but the one missing observation is this: while we may well make comments that are completely acceptable (and perhaps even expected, especially if we are participating as part of an active community) in one context, when we cannot re-create the same context in which the comments were originally made–and yet still refer to the comments themselves–we are in no good place to pass judgement on people.

    Does this mean that we all have to learn new social graces for interpreting 2.0 comments? Perhaps. Some might chaffe at this suggestion, but it is possible (how many people do you know who still write in ALL CAPS?).

    So, searching for comments is one thing. If we want to actually understand how those comments apply to our current situation, though (job application, leadership race, what-have-you), we also need to search for context. It might be a bit harder, but will probably yield more satisfying search results.