In “Erasing History” Mr. Keller has a question: In the age of the almighty search engine, do we have a right to be forgotten? Prof. Krugman continues to be a voice crying in the wilderness. In “The Story of Our Time” he offers a refresher on our economic woes, and why this is a very bad time for cuts. Here’s Keller:
One of my favorite coffee-table books is an odd volume called “The Commissar Vanishes,” a portfolio of doctored photographs from Stalin’s Russia. When Stalin purged one of his fellow Bolsheviks, the comrade who fell from favor was duly cropped or airbrushed out of official photographs. “The Commissar Vanishes” juxtaposes the before and after. Here is the party stalwart grinning alongside Lenin in Red Square; and now — poof! — he’s gone. Person, un-person. History, un-history.
For a contemporary take on the subject of un-history, I take you now to a lawsuit scheduled for argument next month in a Connecticut courtroom. The case tests the proposition that in America in the Internet age, there are benign, even humane reasons that sometimes history should be erased.
Connecticut has a law that allows people accused of crimes to expunge the official record if a case is dismissed. Most states have some version of expungement laws, or erasure laws as they are sometimes called. They are intended to let those whose cases have been dropped or overturned get on with their lives, unencumbered by the taint of arrest. Thus under the Connecticut law any person whose record is erased “shall be deemed to have never been arrested” and “may swear so under oath.”
Lorraine Martin, a nurse in Greenwich, was arrested in 2010 with her two grown sons when police raided her home and found a small stash of marijuana, scales and plastic bags. The case against her was tossed out when she agreed to take some drug classes, and the official record was automatically purged. It was, the law seemed to assure her, as if it had never happened.
But Martin found that when she applied for jobs that should have been well within her reach, she got the cold shoulder. She Googled herself and discovered what any vigilant employer would have seen: stories still sitting in online news archives with headlines like “Mother and sons charged with drug offenses.”
“It’s essentially a scarlet letter,” her lawyer, Mark Sherman, told me. “She’s become unemployable in spite of the fact that she has no criminal arrest record.”
So Martin filed a class action against local news outlets, claiming that they had defamed her and everyone in a similar situation. Defamation is the publication of information that is both damaging and false. The arrest story was obviously true when it was first published. But Connecticut’s erasure law has already established that truth can be fungible. Martin, her suit says, was “deemed never to have been arrested.” And therefore the news story had metamorphosed into a falsehood.
There are passages in the court briefs that make you think the lawyers were possessed by the ghost of Lewis Carroll. They debate the difference between “historical fact” and “legal fact.” They dispute whether something that was true when it happened can become not just private but actually untrue, so untrue you can swear an oath that it never happened and, in the eyes of the law, you’ll be telling the truth. Several pages and copious footnotes are devoted to considering what the meaning of “publish” is. Martin’s lawyers insist that every time a search engine delivers the old story to a new reader, it amounts to republishing, and constitutes a new libel. The defending news companies say that is ridiculous.
The plaintiff’s brief concedes that the suit is “novel,” and most lawyers I talked to predicted the case would probably be dismissed. It seems to collide head on with the First Amendment. The closest thing I could find to a similar case, in New Jersey’s Supreme Court, was thrown out with a ruling that suggested the plaintiff’s logic was “Orwellian.”
But the dilemma underlying this case is real, and not so simple. The Connecticut case is just one manifestation of an anxious backlash against the invasive power of the Internet, a world of Big Data and ever more powerful search engines, in which it seems almost everything is permanently recorded and accessible to almost anyone — potential employers, landlords, dates, predators. In Europe, where press freedoms are less sacred and the right to privacy is more ensconced, the idea has taken hold that individuals have a “right to be forgotten,” and those who want their online particulars expunged tend to have the government on their side. In Germany or Spain, Lorraine Martin might have a winning case.
I sense that the idea is gaining traction here. Erasure laws seem to be proliferating. States feel greater pressure to put public records offline. (After a New York newspaper published names and addresses of local handgun permit-holders, the Legislature in Albany sharply limited access to that information.) Google’s latest transparency report shows a sharp rise in requests from governments and courts to take down potentially damaging material. Editors tell me they are increasingly beset by readers who once cooperated with a reporter on a sensitive subject — nudism, anorexia, bullying — and years later find that old story a recurring source of distress. (It’s called “source remorse.”)
Greg Brock, who handles reader complaints for The Times, says he now gets about four pleas a week from readers who want something purged. Most involve items from the police blotter, though he also gets requests to delete announcements of weddings that have since ended in ugly divorce. The most heartbreaking appeal he has heard involved the story of a toddler who apparently mistook her newborn twin siblings for dolls, pulled them from their cribs to play with them and inadvertently killed them. Nearly 30 years later, the toddler is now a teacher. When her students plugged her name into Google, the first thing that popped up was a headline tying her to the death of the twins.
As if that were not enough, there is a growing flock of buzzards to feed on your distress. Mugshots.com, for example, collects and posts arrest records from all over, complete with lurid mug shots, and then offers to redact your information — for $399.
However understandable the yearning to escape painful memories, The Times’s policy is not to censor history, because it’s history. The paper will update an arrest story if presented with evidence of an acquittal or dismissal, completing the story but not deleting the story.
Some papers have compromised by agreeing in certain instances to insert a bit of code in online articles that prevents them from being fetched by the major search engines. The stories can still be found in the paper’s digital archive, just as they can be found in bound volumes at the local library, but they do not show up on Google. The Hearst Corporation, a defendant in that Connecticut libel suit, is experimenting with such a program. The Times considered a similar policy a few years ago, and we decided it was a slippery slope. But perhaps it’s time to reopen that discussion.
A number of privacy protection firms use another technique. They prepare packets of non-damaging information about their clients — academic records, philanthropic work — and “optimize” them so they pop up in search-engine rankings before the more embarrassing stuff.
Last month Owen Tripp, a co-founder of Reputation.com, which has made a business out of helping clients manage their digital profile, advocated a “right to be forgotten” in a YouTube video. Tripp said everyone is entitled to a bit of space to grow up, to experiment, to make mistakes.
“How do we give people a chance to go back and to edit, to trim around the edges, or at least drop the veil across those things that are most private?” he asked.
“This is not just a privacy problem,” said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, and author of “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.” “If we are continually reminded about people’s mistakes, we are not able to judge them for who they are in the present. We need some way to put a speed-brake on the omnipresence of the past.”
What that brake might be, he says, is not entirely clear. He is wary of legislation, but would like to see search engine companies — the parties that benefit the most financially from amassing our information — offer the kind of reputation-protecting tools that are now available only to those who can afford paid services like those of Reputation.com. Google, he points out, already takes down five million items a week because of claims that they violate copyrights. Why shouldn’t we expect Google to give users an option — and a simple process — to have news stories about them down-ranked or omitted from future search results? Good question. What’s so sacred about a search algorithm, anyway? After all, nobody ever called Google the first draft of history.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Those of us who have spent years arguing against premature fiscal austerity have just had a good two weeks. Academic studies that supposedly justified austerity have lost credibility; hard-liners in the European Commission and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric. The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.
My sense, however, is that many people still don’t understand what this is all about. So this seems like a good time to offer a sort of refresher on the nature of our economic woes, and why this remains a very bad time for spending cuts.
Let’s start with what may be the most crucial thing to understand: the economy is not like an individual family.
Families earn what they can, and spend as much as they think prudent; spending and earning opportunities are two different things. In the economy as a whole, however, income and spending are interdependent: my spending is your income, and your spending is my income. If both of us slash spending at the same time, both of our incomes will fall too.
And that’s what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. Many people suddenly cut spending, either because they chose to or because their creditors forced them to; meanwhile, not many people were able or willing to spend more. The result was a plunge in incomes that also caused a plunge in employment, creating the depression that persists to this day.
Why did spending plunge? Mainly because of a burst housing bubble and an overhang of private-sector debt — but if you ask me, people talk too much about what went wrong during the boom years and not enough about what we should be doing now. For no matter how lurid the excesses of the past, there’s no good reason that we should pay for them with year after year of mass unemployment.
So what could we do to reduce unemployment? The answer is, this is a time for above-normal government spending, to sustain the economy until the private sector is willing to spend again. The crucial point is that under current conditions, the government is not, repeat not, in competition with the private sector. Government spending doesn’t divert resources away from private uses; it puts unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn’t crowd out private investment; it mobilizes funds that would otherwise go unused.
Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity.
O.K., I’ve just given you a story, but why should you believe it? There are, after all, people who insist that the real problem is on the economy’s supply side: that workers lack the skills they need, or that unemployment insurance has destroyed the incentive to work, or that the looming menace of universal health care is preventing hiring, or whatever. How do we know that they’re wrong?
Well, I could go on at length on this topic, but just look at the predictions the two sides in this debate have made. People like me predicted right from the start that large budget deficits would have little effect on interest rates, that large-scale “money printing” by the Fed (not a good description of actual Fed policy, but never mind) wouldn’t be inflationary, that austerity policies would lead to terrible economic downturns. The other side jeered, insisting that interest rates would skyrocket and that austerity would actually lead to economic expansion. Ask bond traders, or the suffering populations of Spain, Portugal and so on, how it actually turned out.
Is the story really that simple, and would it really be that easy to end the scourge of unemployment? Yes — but powerful people don’t want to believe it. Some of them have a visceral sense that suffering is good, that we must pay a price for past sins (even if the sinners then and the sufferers now are very different groups of people). Some of them see the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the social safety net. And just about everyone in the policy elite takes cues from a wealthy minority that isn’t actually feeling much pain.
What has happened now, however, is that the drive for austerity has lost its intellectual fig leaf, and stands exposed as the expression of prejudice, opportunism and class interest it always was. And maybe, just maybe, that sudden exposure will give us a chance to start doing something about the depression we’re in.