Gigabytes have been written about the digital revolution, but little attention has been paid to one of its most potentially profound social changes: The Internet doesn't forget. Memories fade, but electronic archives are turning fleeting snapshots of our past lives into permanent records that may follow us forever.
And that has enormous consequences for us as communicators, journalists and citizens.
The common perception is that the Web is a fragile creature filled with dead links, "404 Not Found" error messages, hasty e-mails and other transient digital debris. Indeed, leading figures on the Net have bemoaned the wholesale loss of the Web's early years, such as many of the political sites devoted to the '96 election.
But efforts are underway to change all that. Brewster Kahle of San Francisco, inventor of several Internet search engines, is trying to collect, store and catalog the entire World Wide Web and all 33,000 Usenet newsgroups. Kahle's nonprofit Internet Archive and more recent Alexa company are out to become the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria: the repository of all the world's public digital information. To date he's copied and stored some 8 trillion bytes of words, images and sounds (compared to 20 trillion in the Library of Congress).
"If we don't organize the Internet, people will tune out all the noise and they'll settle for calling up 10 channels, and we'll just have television on the Net," he says.
Kahle (who has cooperated with publishers to iron out copyright issues) and others seeking to organize and preserve the Net deserve high praise for making its riches more accessible. But we all need to raise our awareness of how such efforts are also shrinking the sphere of personal privacy.
Consider three areas:
• Hiring: Applying for a new job? There's a fair chance your prospective employer will use a search engine to scout out your online writings, from prosaic travel pieces to hot-tempered postings to a political newsgroup. In a recent discussion on the online-news listserv, a mailing list of more than 1,000 news professionals, several employers – including an editor at the San Francisco Examiner – said they routinely scour the Net to gauge the habits and personalities of job candidates.
That drew an impassioned rebuke from Marie Coady, a freelance writer in Woburn, Massachusetts, who was unaware that her postings to the group had been cataloged for all the world to see. "When I typed my name into a search engine and found everything I've ever written online, it was a little like coming home and finding someone had gone through my personal belongings," she says. "I felt violated and helpless."
Like it or not, such online sleuthing is here to stay. Used judiciously, the Net's search capabilities offer a valuable tool for cutting through the spin of a resumé and selective clips, ultimately providing a fuller picture of a job candidate's qualifications. But employers tread into unethical waters if they begin probing someone's political or religious beliefs, sexual orientation, attitudes toward unions or quirky personal hobbies. My fear is that even the most fair-minded managers will have their judgment colored.
• Background checks: Until now, journalists have generally respected the private lives of ordinary citizens. Will the new culture of information saturation – where personal lives become public fodder – reshape our journalistic values? When we write about an interview subject, how deeply should we probe the foibles, mistakes and indiscretions of a prominent attorney, pastor, civil servant or teacher?
And what of politicians – do we hold candidates for public office up to a more exacting standard of private conduct? Kahle muses, "It's likely that the president we elect 30 years from now already has a Web page up, posted from his college dorm, and future journalists and pundits will have a field day poring over his college-age musings." Will we be able to resist?
• Digital footprints: Anyone who communicates on the Net, including journalists, should be aware that he or she may be leaving permanent digital footprints, available not only to potential employers but to neighbors, strangers, landlords, rivals, enemies, future lovers, descendents not yet born.
This can be both blessing and curse. For many of us, it would be marvelous for our grandkids to summon up Grandpap's very first home page. For others, whose online forays may not be the stuff of posterity, a gentle forgetfulness would be far kinder.
But that may no longer be possible. The digital attic has begun collecting and storing bits and pieces of our lives. There will be no yard sales, no chance to toss out the useless clutter. The Net has forgotten how to forget. l