Many newspapers and web sites around the world are grappling, as we are, with the challenge to personal privacy posed by search engine access to the content we publish. Beginning with the week of Thursday, October 16th’s Martha’s Vineyard Times, we’re taking steps to discourage the ubiquitous Google search engine from discovering and linking to our weekly Martha’s Vineyard District Court report. Readers of our print and online publications will continue to find this material exactly as before (with in fact some helpful simplification of the archive search on our web site), but casual Google surfers will not easily find links to our pages.
In publishing the court reports each week we make conscious choices balancing community interest against personal privacy. We understand that publishing individual names within the court reports can be embarrassing or have serious adverse personal consequences, and that publication in The Martha’s Vineyard Times’ pages is in itself part of the penalty faced by those named in District Court records. In the end we’re satisfied that the public record needs to be maintained, and we intend to continue our publication policy within the context of our overall sense of community responsibility.
Web publishing and search engine technology, however, have permanently challenged the balance we’ve struck. Google (and its few competitors, such as Bing) make finding an individual appearing in our published court reports a simple matter of micro-seconds for anyone with access to a computer and an Internet connection.
These search results create a new kind of permanent record, eternally accessible to anyone, including college admissions staff, prospective employers, curious friends, and digital voyeurs.
We understand that in a post-web world each of us lives with rapidly expanding consequences for our actions, but each of our punishable acts is not equally vile; the readily accessible and immortal personal data base search engines create has no capacity for modulation, and a teenager at an unauthorized party at one extreme and a violent repeat drug dealer at the other each appears on Google’s pages in the same way.
Search engines like Google take no responsibility for their own role in this new dynamic, and try hard to disassociate themselves from the effect they may have on something as basic as getting a job or securing housing. It’s almost always their position that they are simply finding and linking to material that’s been published elsewhere (in the U.S. at least; the so-called “right to be forgotten” concept is taking hold quickly in Europe).
A request to be “taken down” from Google’s pages in America is almost always redirected to the source of the web post. For newspapers, this idea of “unpublishing” a web story is inapt and disingenuous, and it is unrelated to our professional obligations, let alone to the reality of our already-existing printed products.
The Martha’s Vineyard Times will continue publishing our community’s news in a responsible fashion, but we won’t contribute to the transfer of our responsibility to Google or other search engines any more than we have to. We don’t expect to influence international trends in technology and social behavior, but we can do our best to match our actions to our beliefs. So, we’re using tools Google itself provides to block search indexing of our court reports. You’ll still see the reports in our newspaper pages, and you’ll find current reports and links to past reports at mvtimes.com. You shouldn’t, though, find our court reports through Google searches.