Future Tense

Who Deserves to Have Their Past Mistakes “Forgotten”?

Newspapers are trying to figure it out.

A front page of a newspaper that has been erased with a large pink erasure.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by kurapy11/iStock/Getty Images Plus, PhotoMelon/iStock/Getty Images Plus, MicrovOne/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and klikk/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

When a police officer recently asked the Cleveland Plain Dealer to remove his name from articles about a crime he committed years ago on the job, editor Chris Quinn wasn’t sure what to do. Ever since the Ohio newspaper began its “right to be forgotten” program in 2018, one of the first in the country, Quinn and a committee of editors have considered hundreds of petitions like this one. Eighty percent of the time, Quinn said, they grant the requests, deciding that forever preserving the story online does more harm to the subject than it provides value to the community.

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But when it came to the police officer’s case, Quinn and his team felt conflicted. The officer had pleaded guilty to the crime, served a sentence, and then successfully petitioned the court to seal his case file. But he was still a public official, the committee concluded, and those he might arrest someday deserve to know of his past misconduct. The newspaper denied the request—and Quinn still isn’t sure it was the right decision, as he detailed in a letter from the editor published Jan. 30. “Because we were on the forefront, there was no playbook,” Quinn told me. He and his colleagues look forward to a time “when enough newsrooms are doing it where we can do what journalism has always done, which is to develop a consensus on best practices.”

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On Jan. 22, the media industry got one step closer to Quinn’s ideal when the Boston Globe announced it would start its own “right to forgotten program,” called Fresh Start. While newspapers across the country, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Bangor Daily News, have launched similar efforts, the Globe is the biggest newspaper to publicly announce a program with such a wide scope. The Journal-Constitution’s, for instance, is mainly for people whose records have been expunged. The Globe’s new, broader effort suggests the practice may soon become mainstream.

“The industry was dead set against this in the beginning,” Quinn said. Other newsrooms had similar efforts when the Plain Dealer began its program three years ago, “but they weren’t talking about it because they didn’t want to be vilified by their colleagues in the industry,” he said. “Boston doing it, I think that just is going to take away all the fence-sitting. This will become the practice.”

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Like the Plain Dealer, the Globe will accept petitions from people who fill out an online form asking for a story about them to be updated or anonymized. A committee of 10 journalists from the Globe and its sister site Boston.com will convene monthly to discuss, holding a particularly high standard for serious crimes and those committed by public figures. In some cases, the editors may decide to remove someone’s name; in others, to deindex the article from search engines. “This isn’t about rewriting history,” said Jason Tuohey, the Globe’s managing editor for digital, who noted that in the week following the program’s announcement, the paper received about 18 requests. It’s “an acknowledgement that people can move on with their lives and that we don’t want our journalism to become a barrier to that.”

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The Globe had been considering this effort for a while, according to Tuohey, but it was the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that prompted the newspaper to take action. The Globe’s coverage of its own initiative framed the protests as a reminder of the inequalities of the criminal justice system reflected in coverage of crimes: “It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects,” said editor Brian McGrory. “Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color.” For years, Tuohey and other editors had received, and sometimes granted, petitions from people looking to clean their digital slates. “Now was really the time to come up with a plan and an initiative that was more than a one-off,” Tuohey said. “Part of what Fresh Start is to formalize this process so someone’s chance of being heard doesn’t rest on their ability to find my email address.”

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Though lately considered through a social justice lens, the idea of “the right to be forgotten” isn’t new. In 2014, the European Union implemented a law stating that anyone in the EU can petition Google to delete links from its index that contain old or irrelevant personal information. Used by many who want unwanted news coverage about them removed, the policy has elicited intense controversy, given that it can suppress information that many believe should be public knowledge.

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Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford, made the case in his 2009 book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, that the way technology reminds us of our past harms our ability to forgive and make decisions in the present. “If we have a digital tool that continually reminds us of the past, then we have undone a key feature of human cognition and that is the ability to let go of memories,” Mayer-Schönberger told me. Eighty-five percent of Americans, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2019, believe they should have the right to remove embarrassing photos and videos from search results; less than half of that say the same right should apply to criminal records and mug shots. But even when it comes to criminal history, newspapers, once deemed “the first rough draft of history,” were never meant to preserve everything with just a few keystrokes; you used to have to labor through microfiche to access old articles, the same way you might have rummaged through attic boxes for old photos rather than scrolling to the bottom of an Instagram profile. “It’s these kind of speed bumps that we need in order to be reminded of the importance of forgetting,” Mayer-Schönberger said. “I don’t want newspapers to forget completely, but I do want them to make it just a little harder.”

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The success of efforts like the Globe’s and the Plain Dealer’s depends on making sure the process of anonymizing, updating, or deindexing coverage—the speed bumps—doesn’t introduce other issues. No matter how prepared for debate and equipped with diversity and inclusion training, a committee of journalists deciding people’s digital fates on a case-by-case basis is tricky. Would you remove the mug shot of a former drug addict who turned her life around and now counsels other drug users? What about the name of a teacher who was accused of having sex with a 12-year-old girl only to be found not guilty? Or the story of a now divorced couple whose feature spread about their great love now feels mortifying? These are all requests that the Plain Dealer has granted. But what about when you’re considering the application of a Black man once charged with burglary who accepted a plea offer? The fact that he accepted the offer might make you think that the content shouldn’t be removed—but such plea bargains have a history of racial bias. “If you just go with what they’re ultimately convicted with, you’re importing the prosecution and the justice system’s bias,” said Quinn.

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Accessibility to the program in the first place may import another bias. The Globe positioned Fresh Start as a social justice effort—“part of a broader effort to rethink the Globe’s criminal justice coverage and how it affects communities of color,” as its coverage read—but getting the word out to those communities will take additional effort. Tuohey said they’ve reached out to community leaders to spread the word and hope to host events to alert more potential applicants at some point. The Plain Dealer, meanwhile, is trying to create a system in which people won’t even have to apply—in December, Google gave the newsroom a grant to develop an app that would “bubble up” categories of stories for editors to consider anonymizing, such as a spell of four years when the newspaper amplified its coverage of minor crimes, assigning a reporter to the police and court blotter. The app will also flag and delete mug shots, which tend to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Quinn hopes other newsrooms could someday use the program, which is set to be completed at the end of this year, in order to expand the scope of “right to be forgotten” efforts and preserve newsrooms’ already strapped resources.

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The careful approach of these efforts makes sense, given the dangers that right to be forgotten legislation in Europe has highlighted. “Most right to be forgotten requests come from relatively affluent clients that can pay lawyers or special service providers to go to Google and request that certain content is no longer indexed,” said Mayer-Schönberger. “The rich and affluent can almost always can get their privacy, but I wanted privacy and I wanted forgetting for you and me, and not just for the rich. And the right to be forgotten arguably has not succeeded, or has not completely succeeded, on that benchmark.”

Like other U.S. newsrooms, the Globe and the Plain Dealer draw the line at petitions from lawyers, corporations, or government agencies. But the experimental nature of the programs emphasizes that much of the policy is still being shaped. Quinn has wondered whether newspapers with such programs should team up with Google, given that removing one newspaper’s article won’t erase other coverage of the crime. (And in addition to newspaper coverage, there are dozens of websites that compile mug shots and rank them high on search results, in some cases removing them only for hundreds of dollars.) He imagines one possible system in which newsrooms and journalism organizations agree on generally accepted practices, Google sets up the form for people to apply for anonymization, and then Google sends out the applications to all the different newsrooms, who would then run them through their filters and respond to them in the same way.

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But Mayer-Schönberger worries about getting Google too involved. “Facebook but also Google have shown over and over again that they don’t take their responsibility particularly seriously,” he said of the tech giants’ habit for scapegoating their algorithms rather than making substantive choices when it comes to context. “Newspapers have the DNA to do [this work]. They understand what content does, what text does, what consequences reporting has. … I would trust newspapers more than I would trust Google.”

As clarifying as “right to be forgotten” standards would be, Mayer-Schönberger believes that subjectivity is actually key to the programs’ success. “Even if there were a best practice type of standard, it would be interpreted differently in different newspapers, much like different judges interpret the law differently,” said Mayer-Schönberger. “I think part of the pluralistic society in which we live is that there’s also a different opinion about what shall and shall not be expunged.” While newspapers can swap advice and opinions, establishing a strict standard for “right to be forgotten” petitions would inhibit not only the free speech that defines media, but also newspapers’ core strength—the ability to define relevance for themselves. In the old days of media, and to a lesser extent today, journalists jockeyed for space in print. “This fight for space was a fight for relevance, and this arguably, I would suggest, made newspapers better,” said Mayer-Schönberger. And this attention to relevance, he believes, distinguishes newspapers from algorithmically moderated platforms like Facebook. “My advice is to see this as the beginning of a competitive advantage,” he said. “Because curating content based on relevance, importance, [and] the standard of care that went into the article is, I strongly believe, the only avenue forward for newspapers to survive in the digital age.”

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In the best-case scenario, “right to be forgotten” programs could propel newsrooms not only to survive but to become better. Allowing someone else to forget and grow from their mistake is a practice that newspapers ought to apply to themselves, especially as they continue to publish stories daily that affect people’s digital fates. As Tuohey said, the Globe’s “right to be forgotten” initiative will newly force the paper to grapple with its criminal justice coverage. “If we see a story where we think maybe sometime in the future we might be deindexing it because of Fresh Start, that’s going to be a real question,” he said. “Do we even cover that story these days?”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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