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Jan. 8, 2018, 9:11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Offshore Journalism Project would let newsrooms send a “distress signal” when their content is at risk of being lost forever

“When digital news outlets disappear, the holes in coverage show, and they can be huge.”

On March 23, 2006, PrimaDaNoi.it, a local news site covering the Abruzzo region of Central Italy, published a story about a couple who had been arrested for attempted extortion. In 2007, the couple was acquitted, and PrimaDaNoi.it updated its story. It updated the story again in 2008, when the couple sued the Italian state for “unjust detention.”

The PrimaDaNoi.it story continued to show up in Google searches for the couple’s names, and though it was updated and accurate, the couple asked PrimaDaNoi.it repeatedly to remove it. When the site wouldn’t do so, the couple escalated their complaint to a local court. Ultimately, in 2011, the court ruled that “enough time had passed” that the article should be taken down. PrimaDaNoi.it was ordered to delete the article and pay €5,000 in damages.

During the same time period, PrimaDaNoi.it became involved in a similar case, over a story in which four people from the same family got into a public fight that resulted in two stabbings. One of those people asked that his own name, and the name of the restaurant he owned, be removed from PrimaDaNoi.it’s article; he sued the publisher on October 26, 2010, saying it wasn’t fair to have “his reputation exposed for an unlimited time even when, with the passing of time, public interest in the news has ceased.” This case escalated to the Italian Supreme Court, which ruled in 2016 that news effectively has an expiration date and that this story had reached it.

PrimaDaNoi.it, which has a staff of four, has since 2010 been subject to 15 right-to-be-forgotten lawsuits, according to Alessandro Biancardi, the site’s editor and publisher. “As we publish the verdicts of criminal cases, people attack us and ask us to remove…almost as if they were ordering in a restaurant,” Biancardi recently told Nicolas Kayser-Bril and Mario Tedeschini-Lalli, the founders of the Offshore Journalism Project — an initiative to “maximize free speech” around the world by “exploiting different jurisdictions.” That is, figuring out ways to let news publishers, especially those from European countries with right-to-be-forgotten laws, preserve their digital work by archiving it in countries with stronger freedom-of-speech laws, namely the United States.

“We’d like to provide publishers and newsrooms with, essentially, a distress signal system, by which they can communicate to third parties the need for some of their material to be saved elsewhere,” Tedeschini-Lalli, a Rome-based digital strategy consultant who wears many hats, told me. The Offshore Journalism Project received funding from the Google Digital News Initiative and released its initial report last summer. Digital journalism means that “journalists and publishers are no longer ‘writing for the present,’ they are actually producing information to be consumed across time, in different and unimaginable contexts,'” Tedeschini-Lalli and Kayser-Bril write in their report:

They are to all effects ‘writing for the future’ too. Writing for the future means providing each information item with all the attributes that will make it findable by and relevant to a different public, at a different time. Whether or not publishers and journalists are fully aware of the possibility, this is a giant step in redefining freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

As a matter of principle, the authors of this report maintain that freedom of the press in the digital environment — which is our all-absorbing environment anyway — include the freedom of “publishing for the future,” and that limiting or curtailing it puts freedom of speech at risk…

Unfortunately, public opinion in many democratic countries seems increasingly ready to accept measures in the digital universe that would have been unacceptable in the analog world: mandated edits, de-indexining and de-linking (e.g.: limiting “circulation”), or outright forced cancellation, be it of provisional or permanent nature.

It’s not that archiving solutions don’t exist already — they do, with the Internet Archive being the most well-known — but they aren’t perfect. They don’t automatically preserve some content, like embedded YouTube videos; they often can’t get around paywalls; they can’t pull content from walled platforms like Facebook. (At the same time, there’s a flip side to Facebook’s being a walled garden: The report covers ways in which some publishers in countries with authoritarian governments, like Egypt’s Mada Masr, have used big international platforms like Facebook, Google, and the Amazon cloud to host their reporting, circumventing local bans and “betting on the political and economical cost that a direct censorship of such large players would entail for the local government.”)

Archiving sites are also rarely able to preserve an entire site:

When digital news outlets disappear, the holes in coverage show, and they can be huge. In January 2017, for instance, the main digital-only newsroom in Portugal, Diário Digital, was shut down by its publisher for financial reasons. Diário Digital had been the largest and oldest online newsroom in the country and had operated continuously since 1999. It had no paywall and no specific robots.txt instruction that could have hampered archiving. Despite these advantages, most of the content of Diário Digital is not to be found on the Internet Archive or Arquivo.pt. No study has been made to know how many articles published by Diário Digital in its 17 years of operation have been lost or how important they were.

And publishers face legal repercussions if they attempt to archive content once a court has ordered them to remove it. The Offshore Journalism Project, therefore, is looking at a solution that gives “newsworthy content published online…an HTML metatag that would indicate to crawlers what should be archived, what type of content (text and/or video) should be archived and what level of priority it has. With such a standard in place, crawlers created by third parties could ask archiving services to make a copy of a specific page, including its multimedia content if need be.” Publishers could change the value of the tag if they feel a piece of content is at risk of being removed, or this could be done automatically for all of an outlet’s original content.

Once the metatag is activated, there are a few possibilities, Tedeschini-Lalli said. A crawler could save the page and publish it right away in one of the big international archiving services, like Archive.org or Archive.is, with the publisher ceding ownership of the content immediately. Second, the content could be saved and published on a set date (“there may be some reasonable commercial reasons for a publisher to want to duplicate publicly only after a certain date”). Third, the content could be saved and only published in the event that the original page is taken down.

After testing, the Offshore Journalism Project plans to open its tool up to everyone, and is hoping for broader discussion around the issue — including the formation of some set of broader guidelines for deletion. As the report stresses, some content is still going to wind up being deleted; the goal is for newsrooms themselves to be a part of that discussion. As one journalist told Kayser-Bril and Tedeschini-Lalli:

“In order to fight for and be listened to when we say ‘This information really matters, it serves a public interest and ought to be preserved,’ we have to show that we recognize that digital technologies have changed the enduring nature of information and that something when published can do harm. I’m thinking of cases like when someone’s very young and they are the subject of publicity; they may say something or do something in a way that you and I would never have suffered from, because you and I were young in the pre-Internet days probably — might find it chasing them through their lives and is readily returned by increasingly sophisticated search engines.

I’m suggesting that journalists who speak for freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of information also know that nowadays in the digital world we have to open our minds to the effect that some data is inherently trivial, or harmful, or its usefulness has expired. Now there is a lot of difficult decision-making inside of what I just said, but I think we need to not come across as absolutists.”

One thing is for sure: These conversations can’t happen too soon — and, as Tedeschini-Lalli pointed out, it’s not inconceivable that right-to-be-forgotten laws could make it to the United States in some form. Last year, a right-to-be-forgotten bill was introduced in the New York state legislature, though it was ultimately pulled. Combine that with Trump’s repeated threats to try to change libel laws, and “I’m not sure whether this will never be an issue in the U.S.,” Tedeschini-Lalli said.

Photo of the Bodie Island lighthouse in North Carolina by Alistair Nicol used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 8, 2018, 9:11 a.m.
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