Archivists on the News: The Archivist in an Accountable World

Archivists on the News is a new series featuring perspectives on current news. Our first post comes from Joel Horowitz, Special Collections Librarian at the Alexandria Library, Local History/Special Collections Branch. You can follow him on Twitter @PurpleArchivist.

“It is your duty to make sure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.” So concludes the introductory video of Canary Mission, which seeks to document students and faculty expressing what it classifies as extremist views on college campuses. Users who have chosen to “defend freedom” are invited to submit video and social media evidence and open source records to their site because otherwise “a few years later these individuals are applying for jobs within your company.” Decades-old information has long been sought about political candidates, but preventive collection from college students with the stated goal of creating a blacklist or inspiring retractions is a significant step in that direction, and might face enormous challenges in proving authenticity in the face of politically motivated skepticism (Canary Mission would not comment on the length of time it plans to preserve information).

Canary-Mission
Header image from Canary Mission’s website

In a previous era, personal papers were exactly that, personal. In fact, they were often purged (or “organized”) to remove embarrassing material before becoming available to the public through a professional organization. Today, more and more of our personal records are available in real time, and our lives examined as we live them to be treated as public records by those who choose. SAA advocacy guidelines have long focused on the privacy of information in government hands and letting “public leaders,” “public officials,” and “agencies” be held accountable by citizens. But we must also consider the accountability of citizens by citizens according to their own subjective values through the collection of our records to be preserved for our lifetimes, if not beyond, in public view.

Moving in the opposite direction, some states have banned the practice of demanding access to the social media accounts of job applicants or even taking off-duty political activities into consideration. More notably, groups like Ban the Box have sought to limit the consideration of even criminal records in hiring.

But are there costs to a highly private society? Recent years have seen a rise in the practice of “doxing,” in which an ordinary individual is exposed to public retaliation for acts they performed anonymously or in private. It’s typically associated with outing people from Unite the Right rallies or otherwise deemed racists, but a similar approach has been used for other things like being a gamer or, in an earlier era, being gay. Obviously, the level of stigma attached to the many behaviors and characteristics people are reluctant to admit publicly vary, which can obscure how common they are. A less private “accountability society” could make some stigmas disappear (as gay pride has helped to do), while making others more impactful (as Canary’s slogan hopes). In this way, privacy can be a question of trust in social norms.

Historians of privacy remind us that it is in many ways a relatively new thing, a creation of the 19th and 20th centuries that earlier ancestors had limited knowledge or experience with as we understand it. Privacy as a right in the United States has its origins in an 1890 law review article. Balloting became secret in America only gradually over the second half of the 19th century, but is now covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet political parties and their allies have massive databases of public and corporate information that they will probably keep on us forever, eroding the privacy of our political opinions. In a lengthy 2015 piece, Greg Ferenstein argues that privacy was once rare because it was difficult and inconvenient to maintain and is likely to be abandoned if those conditions return, as he expects to result from advances in medicine and other personalization technologies.

Such an outcome is not inevitable, and Europe is at the forefront of cementing the current order through its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The European “right to be forgotten” is essentially a right to erase the history of one’s life, even when lived in public, so long as it is not yet vitally important to that public. Through the GDPR, Europeans are once again able to purge the modern version of their “papers” and present a curated, up-to-date, image of themselves, unless they fall under one of its exceptions.

China appears to be taking the opposite path from Europe. A place where social norms and social cohesion are highly prized, China is promising to restore “trust” in society by assigning a Social Credit Score to every citizen based on an analysis of available data. While a uniform government score based on our histories might prove tyrannical (and China’s isn’t yet), one could theoretically allow a variety of groups, interests, and communities to offer their own methods of scoring data, and each individual to choose the system whose opinion they value or need, which is not far from how we are privately evaluated today for things like credit, jobs, insurance, and dating. American society, too, is still grappling with the basic question of what, if anything, we should know about each other and when.

While a recent article by Ashlyn Velte on activist social media archives does point to emerging ethical debates and standards for donated materials, it may prove difficult for the profession to try to impose these standards on politically motivated collecting organizations pursuing goals many archivists support. Is it unethical for an archivist to participate in an accountability project or a public service for them to do so? Does it depend on the goals? The methods? Is it even our right to shape society so fundamentally by boycotting organizations that operate outside our guidelines, but within our laws? It isn’t clear the profession has official answers to these questions. But if these privately managed public digital archives might end up being assembled for long-term preservation by archival tools, archival methods, and ultimately digital archivists trained for the purpose, how can it not?

Editor’s note: I&A posted about the Right to Be Forgotten in 2016 in this research post.

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