In the great Monty Python and the Holy Grail, medieval morticians pile deceased plague victims into wheelbarrows. An elderly victim complains repeatedly to a disinterested Eric Idle that he’s “not dead yet.”
Same for this blog. Inactive for several years but “not dead yet.” I let the site rest (in Python terms, I let it “Idle”) for several years while I focused on other pursuits such as scholarship, teaching, committee work, and my sites at nathenson.org and YouTube. (Check ’em out.)
Events of the recent years, however, have made clear that issues related to “digital garbage” are more urgent than ever. Examples include:
- The right to be forgotten: the digital garbage you want taken down
- Revenge porn: personal digital garbage, not intended for for the world to see
- Data-mining: sifting every bit of your digital garbage for fun and profit
- Fake news: custom-made digital garbage that blurs truth and amplifies falsity
- The rise of the twittercrats: digital garbage, gaslighting the public, 140 characters at a time
- Bot twitter accounts: digital garbage avatars and brownshirts
The list could go on and on. So welcome to digital garbage 2.0. Let’s see what life we can pump back into it.
Well, this pissed me off. Long-time readers of this site may recall my interest in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which aims to preserve the historical web. I’ve previously written to criticize the Bush administration for its lengthy robots.txt exclusion file (thousands of lines long), which could be viewed as an attempt to prevent the Wayback Machine and others from archiving portions of his White House website. I also wrote to compliment the new Obama White House website for its much shorter, and much more archive-friendly robots file.
But now the Obama administration is scrubbing the web, too. John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation reports that materials from Obama’s old transition website at Change.gov have recently been deleted. Although the main page has referred users for a while to the Whitehouse.gov site, internal pages regarding his agenda were still online, and “until recently, you could still continue on to see the materials and agenda laid out by the administration.”
So why the change? Wonderlich speculates — and I think 100% correctly — that the internal Change.gov pages were removed due to broken and now inconvenient promises made in the transition team’s “Obama-Biden Plan” to protect whistleblowers. Considering the administration’s consistent actions in aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and others, the administration likely decided to scrub inconvenient promises it made during the transition period.
But in an era of permanent digital records (hello, NSA and its yottabytes of storage in Utah!), how can the Obama administration be so naïve as to think that somebody wouldn’t: 1) notice the missing pages; 2) find the old site; and 3) point it out? As a prosecutor might say, destroying evidence may be proof of a guilty conscience. The administration’s naïveté is positively striking, considering that Obama’s people are widely touted as being extremely tech-savvy.
See for yourself. In an Internet Archive capture of the Change.gov site from June 7, 2013 (barely a month ago), a page on ethics (!) in the Obama-Biden Plan promised to protect whistleblowers:
Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.
Here’s a screen cap. According to the Wayback Machine, this was still online as recently as June 7:
Post-Snowden, this is what you see today:
The difference? No doubt it’s the Snowden affair, which broke in early June. A Google search of Change.gov for “whistleblowers” conducted today (screen cap here) shows no hits, so the page apparently has not been moved to another URL on the site. It simply seems to be gone.
Even more disturbingly, this may reflect a broader trend of digital scrubbing. Wonderlich notes that this is not the first time that Obama administration documents have disappeared from the internet. An earlier posting of his includes a letter the Sunlight Foundation and others sent to the Department of Labor criticizing the administration for removing materials. As the letter states, “No major administration decision should be accompanied by related materials disappearance from public view.”
“Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was ‘Bush-Cheney lite.’ He doesn’t have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the C.I.A. not always aware who it’s killing with drones, with an overzealous approach to leaks, and with the government’s secret domestic spy business swelling, there’s nothing lite about it.”
Maureen Dowd, Peeping Barry, Saturday 6/8/2013 NY Times op-ed.