BoingBoing “unpublishing” blog posts

When is it ok to delete a blog post?  Dan Solove wrote about this a few years back at Concurring Opinions, where he points to additional posts at Prawfsblawg (here, here, and here). More recently, BoingBoing faced public scrutiny when one of its authors removed posts related to blogger and sex columnist Violet Blue, although nobody noticed the removals for about a year.  A message board dedicated to the issue has generated over 1600 messages since July 1, some very heated.  The moderator for the board writes:

It’s our blog and so we made an editorial decision, like we do every single day. We didn’t attempt to silence Violet. We unpublished our own work. There’s a big difference between that and censorship.

We hope you’ll respect our choice to keep the reasons behind this private. We do understand the confusion this caused for some, especially since we fight hard for openness and transparency. We were trying to do the right thing quietly and respectfully, without embarrassing the parties involved.

Clearly, that didn’t work out. In attempting to defuse drama, we inadvertently ignited more. Mind you, we weren’t the ones splashing gasoline around; but we did make the fire possible. We’re sorry about that. In the meantime, Boing Boing’s past content is indexed on the Wayback Machine, a basic Internet resource; so the material should still be available for those who would like to read it.

Oddly, BoingBoing speaks in terms of “unpublishing” rather than deletion.   (Their policy page states “We reserve the right to unpublish or refuse to unpublish anything for any or no reason.”)  Sure, “unpublishing” sounds less big-brothery than deletion, but I don’t really see the difference.

Moreover, “unpublishing” isn’t quite accurate: BoingBoing doesn’t mean “unpublished” in the sense of a book (or blog posting) that has yet to be published.  They mean disabling public access to something that has already been posted, like in the DMCA 512(c) sense where material is removed or access to it is disabled.  (WordPress does have an “unpublishing” function, but that’s still a misnomer.)  A more accurate term might be deposting, depublishing, or good ‘ol deletion.

Nevertheless, it’s useful to explore a potential distinction between deletion and depublishing, and other questions raised when a blogger wants to remove posted materials:

  • As a starting point, what is the meaning of “publication” in an age where materials can be changed or removed?
  • Under what circumstances is depublication justified?
  • What practices are needed to distinguish “depublication” from “deletion?”  Is a reservation of rights declaring a right of depublication sufficient?  Should a notice be posted where the materials used to be (as Dan Markel suggests)?
  • BoingBoing notes that the removed materials remain on the Wayback Machine web archive.  Do web archives help to justify depublication?
  • Does depublication serve an important social function by severing the association between author and depublished content?

Hat tip to Noam Cohen.  And a disclaimer: I did make some edits to this post after posting.

This posting will self-destruct in five seconds

As the Internet Archive shows, there is great value in preserving digital information for posterity. But sometimes, there is greater value in destroying information and doing so quickly. Information Week recounts the 2001 incident when an American spy plane was forced to land in Chinese territory after the plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The article notes that the U.S. crew was unable to erase the hard drives in time to protect the security of sensitive information. “Since then,” the article states, “researchers have been looking for a way to quickly erase computer hard drives to deny access to sensitive intelligence data.”

According to the article, researchers have developed an effective technique to erase hard drives in minutes rather than hours:

The researchers concluded that permanent magnets are the best solution. Other methods, including burning disks with heat-generating thermite, crushing drives in presses, chemically destroying the media or frying them with microwaves all proved susceptible to sensitive, patient, recovery efforts.

The military need for such technology is obvious and is a simple no-brainer. But additionally interesting are the potential commercial and consumer applications of such technology. According to the article, the researchers claimed the magnetic eraser could be used to quickly erase VHS tapes, floppy drives, data cassettes and hard drives. Maybe someday soon, it will be unacceptable and even illegal for corporations and government agencies to keep sensitive information — like your social security number — on easily stolen laptops, unless those machines are equipped an effective auto-erasure mechanism.