Every so often a public figure will come to the dubious conclusion that the past can be erased. This was a difficult proposition even before the advent of the internet. These days, it's nearly impossible. But long odds rarely deter the particularly inspired… or particularly stupid.
Some abuse the easily-abusable laws in European countries to generate memory holes. Max Mosely has been fruitlessly pursuing the removal of so-called "not actually a Nazi orgy" photos for years. Others simply blunder around, issuing baseless legal threats and questionable DMCA notices. Others, like the UK Conservative Party, do their own dirty work.
Being willing to wipe your own collective memory takes a special kind of bravery, the kind often associated with reckless acts shortly preceded by the phrase, "Hold my beer."
pixelpusher220 was the first to send in the ComputerWeekly story which details the efforts the UK's Conservative Party recently made to eradicate an entire decade's worth of speeches from the internet.
The Conservative Party has attempted to erase a 10-year backlog of speeches from the internet, including pledges for a new kind of transparent politics the prime minister and chancellor made when they were campaigning for election.
Prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne campaigned on a promise to democratise information held by those in power, so people could hold them to account. They wanted to use the internet transform politics.
But the Conservative Party has removed the archive from its public facing website, erasing records of speeches and press releases going back to the year 2000 and up until it was elected in May 2010.
The Conservative Party did more than simply delete the speeches from its site. It also blocked out Google and the Internet Archive using an extensive addition to its robots.txt. This is just a small excerpt of conservatives.com's bot blocking additions.
So, how did it get the Internet Archive to remove its historical collection, something ComputerWeekly writer Mark Ballard likens to "sending Men in Black to strip history books from a public library and burn them in the car park?"
Well, apparently the Internet Archive treats changes to robots.txt files as retroactively applicable. Once the bot blocker informed IA it was no longer welcome
to crawl these pages, it erased the corresponding archives as a "matter of courtesy."
By making this change, the Conservative Party was able to eliminate 1,158 "snapshots" the Archive had gathered over the last 14 years, a rather breathtaking eradication accomplished without ever having to strong arm internet historians or stare down Google directly.
The Conservative Party has offered no comment on the slash-and-burn of its own history, simply saying it has passed along the query to its "website guy."
Now that the speeches (and the Archives) have been removed, conservatives.com's robots.txt
has been trimmed down to something more manageable.
A search through its xml sitemap
confirms that nothing remains of the pre-2010 speeches. The earliest speech listed in the xml file is from June of 2010. Users browsing the site will be hard pressed to find any speeches earlier than January of 2013, however. Searching through the sitemap will uncover direct links to earlier speeches but clicking the "Archive" button to view older speeches automatically limits results to 2013. Here's the shady URL the "Archive" button leads to:
So, why are these speeches being buried? Perhaps it has something to do with the Cameron's promises of government transparency and accountability made while campaigning, something he increasingly lost interest in once in power.
"Above all, the power for anyone to hold to account those who in the past might have had a monopoly of power - whether it's government, big business, or the traditional media," said Cameron, who was then campaigning for power as leader of the Conservative opposition.
Cameron was going to make sure the information revolution would hold people like prime ministers to account, he said another speech on 11 October 2007, at the Google Zeitgeist Conference in San Francisco.
"It's clear to me that political leaders will have to learn to let go," he said then. "Let go of the information that we've guarded so jealously."
Transparency would make public officials accountable to the people, said Cameron then. He was riding at the front of the wave that would wash us into a new world, and a new age.
Like many politicians, transparency and accountability sound like great ideas when you're lapping up applause (and votes) and hoping to stick it to your legislative adversaries. But it swiftly loses its luster the first time it's applied to you and your activities. Then it's back to the old ways that have "worked" for years. Obfuscation, opacity and a growing tendency to view your constituents as the enemy swiftly replace the campaigning ideals.
Years down the road, after many years at the helm, this viewpoint realignment culminates in running a decade's-worth of empty promises through the internet shredder in hopes of trimming down the number of irate citizens using your own words against you.
Unfortunately for those manning the shredder, they seem to have missed another set of archives, one located in their own backyard. A commenter at ComputerWeekly
points out that the Conservative Party site has been archived by the British Library since 2004
, and many of those supposedly vanished speeches are only a few clicks away
All this effort will do for the Conservative Party is make it look worse. There's zero net gain to be had here. Nothing completely vanishes from the net and even if the Internet Archive may err on the side of courtesy in its efforts, others will be saving, securing and stashing the same documents and webpages certain entities wish to remove from the public eye. The harder they try, the more likely they are to fail.