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The Globe and Mail

Public Editor: We’re not in the unpublishing business

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

The Globe and Mail

So far this year, I've had more than a dozen requests to remove articles, photos or caption information from The Globe and Mail digital archives.

The reasons vary. Some believe that, if there is a significant error, the content should simply disappear. One reader called recently about an error in an obit – and wanted the entire obit removed.

We don't do that. If there is an error, the story is corrected to say what is right and to also include a note about what was initially wrong. This happens both in the newspaper, on Page A2, and with the digital version of the article.

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Sometimes, people are embarrassed by information about themselves in the digital world. They may find a photo unflattering, and want to offer a better one. In one case, a young man was embarrassed by an ironic T-shirt he had been wearing.

One woman wanted a positive article about her and her ex-husband removed because she didn't want her family to be reminded of a bad marriage.

But far and away, the most requests come in regard to stories about criminal charges and convictions.

Just days after Marco Muzzo of King Township, Ont., was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for impaired driving in a crash that killed three children and their grandfather, I heard from a reader upset that a story about her own multiple convictions for impaired driving was still available to digital readers; she said it was extremely damaging to her reputation. The same argument about damaged reputation came from a man with just one conviction for impaired driving.

As with other newspapers around the world, The Globe and Mail's policy is not to unpublish something that has been published. These articles are part of the archives of the newspaper and its digital products. Both have been on digital products and searchable for many years, and the public has an expectation that the archives can be viewed and are true to their original form. In many ways, they are part of history.

The policy states that The Globe and Mail does not "unpublish" articles, remove names, photos or photo identification; nor does it delete key information from its archives or digital products, other than in rare circumstances, such as to comply with a court order or for other compelling legal reasons. Requests for unpublishing or other removal must be made in writing to the Public Editor, who will consult with senior editors or lawyers as required.

Generally, I hear from the story subjects themselves, but I've also heard from "a reputation specialist," calling on behalf of a client trying to erase stories about past lawsuits.

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Some subjects will invoke the "right to be forgotten," in reference to a ruling by the European Court of Justice that allows people to apply to Google to remove embarrassing personal information from the search engine. This ruling has led to upward of 1,000 requests a day to remove information.

A 2014 article by the Associated Press's Juergen Baetz quoted Daily Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke referring to such removals: "It is the equivalent of going into libraries and burning books you don't like." The article notes that stories that have vanished include ones about "a couple having sex on a train and another about a lawyer facing a fraud trial." I remind Canadian readers that this ruling applies in the European Union only.

Other readers, wanting photos removed, will invoke the federal Privacy Act. Note, these are photos for which the subjects provided a Globe and Mail photographer the correct spelling of their name, and that they were told would appear in The Globe. The office of the federal Privacy Commissioner says on its website that the act applies "to the collection, use or disclosure of personal information in the course of commercial activity." There is, however, an exemption for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes.

One man wanting a photo removed did not disagree that he would have spelled his name to a photographer who had identified himself as working for The Globe and Mail and taking photos for The Globe. But, the man argued, he did not give explicit permission to have the photo appear digitally.

I find it hard to accept that anyone would use this argument today, 21 years after was launched. All articles and photos in the newspaper are online and on other digital products, and have been for years.

Gone are the days when you had to go to a library to search the microfiche to find old articles. Now, anyone with a mobile phone can search at their leisure. Years ago, the paper was the permanent record, and online seemed ephemeral; in fact, the reverse is true.

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