Outrage spread quickly after a straight reporter created a gay dating profile and reported the weights, athletic events and nationalities of Olympians who contacted him, including those from "notoriously homophobic" countries. As furor spread last week, the Daily Beast revised and then retracted the article, sending latecomers to the controversy to the Wayback Machine. But the pioneering web repository had also removed the article.
The director of the Wayback Machine, a peerless library maintained by the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, says the decision does not reflect a pivot toward suppressing controversial content, but rather was made in the interest of athletes’ safety.
“I assure you taste doesn’t really enter into our equation,” Mark Graham tells U.S. News. “The page we’re talking about here was removed from the Wayback Machine out of a concern for safety and that’s it.”
Graham leads a staff of about 10 and says he hasn’t read the article, which a Slate reporter wrote provided enough clues to surmise the identities of five athletes. “If I can find it, I probably will,” he says, citing his own curiosity about why people were outraged.
Graham was not immediately able to think of a similar safety-motivated removal and declined to say if the Internet Archive retains a non-public copy. In fact, he says he has no proof, just circumstantial evidence, the article ever was in the Wayback Machine.
The Wayback Machine’s unique search function frequently is used as a tool for journalists to review now-dead websites or to comb through dated news reports. The archived content has been used to embarrass politicians and expose battlefield lies.
This week Buzzfeed News used the archive to report that Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton removed from her campaign website a statement that survivors of sexual assault “have the right to be believed” as Juanita Broaddrick resurfaced decades-old rape allegations against Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.
The archive was used last month by The Huffington Post to document a website for Republican candidate Donald Trump's wife Melania after it was deleted following questions about its accuracy.
In 2014 an archived social media page of Igor Girkin, a pro-Russia rebel leader in Ukraine, showed he boasted his troops shot down a suspected Ukrainian military airplane before it became known that the plane actually was a Malaysian Airlines jet aboard which 298 civilians died. Girkin deleted the post and subsequently blamed Ukraine’s military.
Last year, the Russian government blocked access to the archive.
Graham assures that the Wayback Machine, which he says archives more than 100 million news articles a week, won’t become subject to whimsical censorship, and says members of the small staff all are dedicated to cultural preservation.
“It’s not a decision that’s made lightly, but certainly we and all human beings have a responsibility to exercise judgment in times when individual personal safety is at risk,” he says.
There are other ways content becomes non-visible to members of the public. If a website attaches “Robots.txt,” for example, the page won’t display. And some websites seek to remove pages by filing complaints alleging copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Graham says “frivolous” complaints are an issue, and that a proposed redefinition of “library” for copyright purposes presents a threat “a million times” that posed by selective and rare excising of stories.
Removal of the Daily Beast article comes, however, amid concern about major internet platforms censoring content, with a bombshell in May revealing Facebook stealthily suppressed news stories, followed by outrage in June when reddit moderators notoriously censored information about the mass murder of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In July Twitter, once slow to purge members of the Islamic State group, booted Milo Yiannopoulos, the conservative commentator, after his tweets allegedly inspired fans to harass an actress about whom he offered a poor review.
Though it may be tempting to see the Wayback Machine action as the latest in a string of efforts to clean up the internet, one that may have an outsized impact because the archive’s historical reliability, not everyone is concerned.
Hayden Hewitt, founder of Liveleak, the user-propelled primary source video website that in 2014 banned footage of beheadings released by the Islamic State group, says it doesn't appear to him that the internet is becoming a more sanitized place.
"Somebody has screenshotted it, someone has saved it," he says about the controversial article. "The internet is an anonymous nation of billions. Everything that ever was is probably out there somewhere."
Though Hewitt says people should avoid content on the internet rather than call for bans, he’s uncertain about whether there should be a publicly available archived version of certain material.
“One of the great issues we have in our societies is people are still led by the mainstream media and politics and we’re often sold a different version than the way things really are -- so it is important things are documented,” he says. “But how important was that trash article from the Daily Beast? … for nothing people are being put in danger. The article is just a really truly prurient vulgar thing.”
The Internet Archive describes itself as a library, but Jessamyn West, a librarian and community technologist in rural Vermont, says the internet introduces significant differences from traditional libraries.
Traditional libraries aren’t stocked with pornography and the book publishing process generally prevents some internet practices such as the publishing of a targeted person’s information online, says West, who works on but does not speak for the Internet Archive’s Open Library e-book lending project, which is separate from the Wayback Machine.
Librarians are resistant to removing books from physical libraries, and if a book is taken off the shelves it’s generally done so at the end of a long process, West says, adding that most librarians probably also support near-unlimited access to content online, though few have had the responsibility of a gatekeeper.
West says the size of an internet audience may be cause to consider limiting access to content that may be less of a concern in book form.
“Let’s say we had a book in the library that had a list of all the athletes that cruised on Grindr. You’d have to go to the library to get that. That in itself is so limiting to make the risk slight,” West says. “But the article became a big deal, and then the edits to the article became a big deal, and then they took the article down and everyone was like, ‘what’s the what? What’s the what?’ so everyone went to the archive to read the article and was linking to the archive, so it’s like the article still being there.”
Other librarians also say the matter presents somewhat of a conundrum.
James LaRue, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, compares the Internet Archive's decision to a journalist's understandable decision not to publish a crime victim's name or a stalking victim's address.
But LaRue acknowledges that it's impossible to avoid subjectivity when removing content, even if general policies and principles are first outlined.
"There is no ultimate policy that is going to make everything completely objective," he says. "There comes a time when librarians or journalists or politicians have to make decision based on the facts at hand, so it becomes subjective."
Chris Bourg, director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the matter is a "a tricky situation where librarian/archivists values of privacy and openness come in to conflict" and says in an email the article simply could be stored in non-public form for as long as necessary.
"My personal opinion is that we should always look for answers that cause the least harm, which in this case would be to dark archive the article; and keep it archived for as long as needed to best protect the gay men who might otherwise be outed," she says. "That’s a difficult thing to do, and is no guarantee that the info won’t be released and available from other sources; but I think archivists/librarians have special responsibilities to the subjects in our collections to 'do no harm'."
Nancy McGovern, president of the Society of American Archivists, says "we're increasingly having to develop protocols for complex situations like these" and agrees with Bourg that the internet's vastness may challenge efforts to reduce potential harm.
Alison Macrina, director of the Library Freedom Project, nonetheless is instinctively uneasy about removing content.
"While librarians deeply value individual privacy, we also strongly oppose censorship, and even though this piece was despicable and not at all in the public interest, you get into some slippery slope territory if you start removing news stories -- who gets to decide what stays and what goes?" she says.
Macrina says similar concern is manifest in librarian criticism of the European concept of a "right to be forgotten" from the internet.
"[It's] great for individual privacy. Also great for censorship. And bad for free speech and transparency," she says. "Also, there's the Streisand effect to consider -- you try to hide something and it inevitably gets more attention. "
West says one less-than-obvious wrinkle is that the athletes may not actually feel threatened, even if they live in a socially repressive country, and that if the Beast had asked and then reported they weren't concerned, that would be a different matter.
“We get a lot of concern trolling on the internet from people who want to get mad for someone else,” West says. “I think the Daily Beast f---ed up, don’t get me wrong. But I think the level of outrage might have been about a perceived threat that wasn’t as much of a big deal. That said, you don’t want until someone gets killed or arrested or whatever happens to gay athletes in repressive countries. And that’s where the thoughtlessness of the Beast came in. They couldn’t get out of their bubble."