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UK’s Conservative party deletes archive of speeches from internet

The Guardian wrote yesterday, “Conservative party deletes archive of speeches from internet.” The Conservative Party has attempted to delete from their website — as well as from the Internet Archive! — all their speeches and press releases online from the past 10 years, including one in which David Cameron promises to use the Internet to make politicians ‘more accountable’.

This is troubling news, but something as old as politicians — see for example ALA’s long-running serial “Less access to less information by and about the US government” which ran from 1981 – 1998. But it should also come as yet another warning to librarians and archivists of the dire need to harvest and preserve government information and store content off of .gov servers.

The party has removed the archive from its public website, erasing records of speeches and press releases from 2000 until May 2010. The effect will be to remove any speeches and articles during the Tories’ modernisation period, including its commitment to spend the same as a Labour government.

The Labour MP Sheila Gilmore accused the party of a cynical stunt, adding: “It will take more than David Cameron pressing delete to make people forget about his broken promises and failure to stand up for anyone beyond a privileged few.”

In a remarkable step the party has also blocked access to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, a US-based library that captures webpages for future generations, using a software robot that directs search engines not to access the pages.

The Tory plan to conceal the shifting strands of policy by previous leaders may not work. The British Library points out it has been archiving the party’s website since 2004. Under a change in the copyright law, the library also downloaded 4.8m domains earlier this year – in effect, anything on the web with a .co.uk address – and says although the Conservative pages use a .com suffix they will be added to the store “as it is firmly within scope of the material we have a duty to archive”. But the British Library archive will only be accessible from terminals in its building, raising questions over the Tory commitment to transparency.

Computer Weekly, which broke the story, pointed out that among the speeches removed were several where senior party members promised, if elected, to use the internet to make politicians accountable.

Why we need digital deposit

David Rosenthal describes a change in the text of a speech that Attorney General Holder gave last October touting the governments Distressed Homeowner Initiative. The text of the speech as originally posted has been changed, apparently without notification or explanation.

  • Winston Smith Lives! by David Rosenthal, DSHR’s Blog (August 13, 2013).

    As usual, the re-writing was caught because there was at least one copy, this time in the Wayback Machine, outside the government’s control. In the good old days of the paper Federal Depository Library Program, there were copies of government documents in libraries all across the nation. That’s the model the LOCKSS program is trying to re-create with the “USDocs” Private LOCKSS Network. Only by having multiple copies under separate administration can we recover from, as opposed to merely detect, tampering with the historical record.

the USDocs Private LOCKSS Network is as close as we have to an FDLP system of digital deposit. We need to go further and make digital deposit the norm so that libraries can serve their own, live version of government information. Doing so would not just expose tampering, but would discourage tampering.

(BTW, in case you forgot, “Winston Smith” is the character in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four whose job as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite historical documents.)

U.S. to Delete Data on Life-Threatening Mistakes From Website

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will be removing statistics on potentially life-threatening” mistakes made in hospitals from its Hospital Compare website. See the “Readmissions, Complications, and Deaths” tab when you choose hospitals to compare.

  • U.S. to Delete Data on Life-Threatening Mistakes From Website, By Charles R. Babcock, Bloomberg (May 2, 2013).

    Two years ago, over objections from the hospital industry, the U.S. announced it would add data about “potentially life-threatening” mistakes made in hospitals to a website people can search to check on safety performance.

    Now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is planning to strip the site of the eight hospital-acquired conditions, which include infections and mismatched blood transfusions, while it comes up with a different set.

    …The statistics were first posted in October 2011. CMS officials have said they’ll be removed during the website’s annual update in July, according to Binder and the American Hospital Association. Binder estimated it could be two years before data from the new HACs appear on Hospital Compare.

Sunlight and Allies to Department of Labor: No Website Scrubbing

The Sunlight Foundation sent a letter to the Department of Labor requesting that the DOL re-post materials online that they removed when they abandoned proposed regulations regarding child labor in agriculture. As the letter says, no major administration decision should be accompanied by related materials’ disappearance from public view.

Co-signers to the letter include the American Association of Law Libraries and the American Library Association.

Voting records expunged in California

In California, Legislative votes on bills are posted on the web (http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/bilinfo.html). In fact, a bill cannot become a law without an official record of the vote. But it is possible to “expunge” votes and the L.A. Times reports that happened recently on a controversial bill.

Although 28 members of the California Assembly supported a measure to allow new oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast, their votes are nowhere to be found in the official state database.

According to the status page for the Assembly Bill “ABX4 23,” on July 24, action was rescinded and the “record expunged whereby a final roll call vote was taken” but no record of the House vote exists on the web site today.

Offshore oil drilling is very controversial in California and both private contractors and the State hoped to reap a lot of money from the drilling. (Plains Exploration Falls On Tranquillon Ridge Rejection >PXP, By Aja Carmichael, Wall Street Journal, JULY 27, 2009).

While voting records are often mis-used, in my opinion, in political contests — taking votes out of context and viewing them as isolated and simple when they are, in fact, part of a process of conflict, compromise, and (one hopes) consensus — removing records from the public record is hard to justify on any grounds.

The usual excuses were used for this recent expunging: It doesn’t happen often; and: Another vote will be taken later on the same or a different bill; and: You can still find the information somewhere else. These are excuses and not reasons and they are not even very good reasons. This is nothing but an attempt to control political information. As one Republican, who wrote the measure, said: “The message to the public is ‘this vote was an inconvenient vote and we would rather you not look at the man behind the curtain.'”