They Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

  • Written By: D. Geller
  • Published On: August 2000

They Can Run, But You Can't Hide
D. Geller - August 22, 2000

Event Summary

It's quite possible that one of your friends, or some organization that has your e-mail address, sent you a notice about Governor George W. Bush of Texas, currently the Republican nominee for President of the United States, having established a "Jesus Day" in Texas. Depending on your political and religious choices you might have felt this to be interesting. TEC of course has no comment one way or the other about the propriety of the announcement, except to note that Texas, like many other states, issues all sorts of proclamations about all sorts of topics. In general, these puff pieces are proclaimed at the behest of a particular organization and are not expected by anyone to represent the policy of the issuing state. Despite the e-mail flurry, the story has not captured many headlines (even on the third page) in American newspapers.

What TEC does find interesting is that when we went to the URL in one of the e-mails that we received, in order to see the proclamation, we got an Error 404 notice - the page did not exist. Nor was this particular proclamation listed on the official listing of Texas state proclamations. Could it have been a hoax? No - because a search in Google revealed the existence of the page at some point in the past. Clicking on that link also brought up a 404-error page. But Google, unlike many other search engines, recognizes that pages age or disappear and presents a link to its own cached copy, which does present the full text of the proclamation.

Market Impact

Other examples from politics and business have shown that electronic and analog copies once thought destroyed reliably emulate Banquo's ghost. What makes this story noteworthy is that it raises the question of who owns web content once it is posted.

Sure, there's no question that an official proclamation of the State of Texas is public information, and we believe Texas would have a very hard time getting Google to remove the cached copy of this page, even if the state cared to try. But imagine for a moment that there was a similar incident involving a private business. Let's suppose, not to pick on anyone else, that TEC made a prediction about a major e-commerce company that was refuted so thoroughly by subsequent events that we felt foolish having made it. Would we have the right to ask services like Google to remove copies of the page from their cache? Since we're not positing any criminal or civil legal entanglements, we can imagine that there would be good arguments on both sides of the question.

We feel confident that an issue of this nature will come up at some point (no, we're not going to make a prediction) and that the discussion will be heated and take quite a while to settle down. Watch for it.

User Recommendations

Once something is posted on your website you have little practical control over what happens to it. In extreme cases, material that you post could turn out later to be deleterious to your best interests.

TEC does not believe that a company should defend against such situations by greatly restricting the information that it posts. Frankly, we think that hiding information (or removing it, as in the Texas case) almost always looks worse than the information itself.

We do recommend that companies exercise benign control and management over their websites. Use of some kind of content management, even as simple as ensuring that every version of a website is backed up and archived, is a necessity for you to know what has been on your site, so that in case of later controversies you know what you said (and what you didn't). If a company can't reconstruct the content of every past version of their website then they're asking to be surprised.

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