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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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The Age of Public Statements

Posts to email forums, Usenet groups, and online chat services are all different kinds of public statements . Most people who decide to take their place in cyberspace eventually start making these statements. And these statements are not like any others ever uttered in the course of human history. In the past, statements made in public were frequently lost. Yes, they could be recorded, but those records were almost always hard to retrieve, or even inaccessible. An angry farmer might speak up at a town meeting and have his name recorded in the minutes, but ten years later, somebody trying to do a background investigation on that farmer would be unlikely to find his remarks—especially if the farmer had moved to Seattle and started a new life as a programmer at Microsoft. Letters written to newspapers in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were certainly published for everybody to see, but they were rarely indexed in computerized databanks and made instantly available anywhere in the world.

This new generation of public statements is quantitatively different from anything that has ever come before. These are public statements that can be instantly searched out by a prospective employer, by a person with whom you have just had your first date, or by a coworker who means you harm. And once you've made a statement, it is out of your control: retraction has become an impossibility.

It is this search capability that is creating a new kind of absolute accountability. It's a simple matter to use the Internet's searching capabilities to get a list of people who have admitted to taking LSD, or who have used racist slurs in print, or who have a history of organizing for labor unions. Says Stapleton, "It's increasingly easy for someone in an HR department to say—'Look, Joe here says that skydiving is cool. Do we want to carry him on the rolls considering that he might die? Jane here is in a lifestyle that the chairman might not find attractive. We might not want to put her forward for the public affairs spot.' I don't have any public activities that I don't want to post about. If I did, I would be very cautious."

Ultimately, the wide availability of this information might create powerful new social filters through which only the boring and reserved will be able to pass. The existence of this information makes opinionated people vulnerable to all sorts of malicious attacks. Pervasive recording and indexing of public statements might keep the best and the brightest from ever holding elected office.

The end of the 1993 Internet Hunt report contains this prescient note: "In short, we're dealing with a unique medium here. It sort of feels like verbal discussion, but it's a lot more enduring, and can reach millions of people."

Ironically, Gates' report endures to this day, and will probably endure for decades more. That's because digitized text is very portable, very compact, and very easy to search. Although the original computer on which he typed and posted his message has long since been retired, the data has been copied again and again and again.

[18] Joseph Malia, "http://Waste.com: Public Employees Using Internet for Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll," Boston Herald, May 12, 1999, p. 1. Full text available online at http://www.bostonherald.com/bostonherald/lonw/emai05121999.htm and http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v99.n505.a11.html/lsd.

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