Sara Day Thomson

Sara Day Thomson

Last updated on 3 April 2018

National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web, New York, 22-24 March 2018

Web archives can serve as witness to crimes, corruption, and abuse; they are powerful advocacy tools; they support community memory around moments of political change, cultural expression, or tragedy. At the same time, they can cause harm and facilitate surveillance and oppression

Tomorrow I jet off to the big apple to attend the National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web hosted by Rhizome, the Documenting the Now project, and partners. 

Held at the New Museum, the Forum brings together activists, librarians, journalists, archivists, scholars, developers, and designers at an institution that has celebrated the innovation of design and method since the 1970s. And as is the case for most major innovations in art, science, technology – with change comes uncertainty. As our society embraces the use of web technologies in its daily lives, new opportunities as well as new dangers arise.

The emerging scandal this week exposing Cambridge Analytica of secretly harvesting the data of 100s of thousands of Facebook users and using it to manipulate user responses to elections is one such an example. While most of the planet happily, innocently shares hilarious memes and carefully curates their profiles, shady little operators have found a way to exploit this rich and revealing information for the benefit of their bank accounts. And maybe a little bit because, well, they can.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, while an insidious abuse of user rights in and of itself, demonstrates a much larger social and political power imbalance affecting the capture and preservation of web data. An imbalance perhaps most dangerous for user-generated data like that from Facebook and Twitter. A passage from ‘The Politics of Twitter Data’ that I quoted in my report on Preserving Social Media that I shamelessly re-quote here sums it up clearly: 

‘It follows that only corporate and government actors – who possess both the intellectual and financial resources to succeed in this race – can afford to participate, and that the emerging data market will be shaped to their interests. End users (both private individuals and non-profit institutions) are without a place in it, except in the role of passive producers of data’.

The Forum this week in New York may not solve the intricate ethical dilemmas of capturing content from the web, but it does highlight an important discrepancy between the major players in this space.

While many with commercial motives view web archives (or ‘data’) as a means to harvest user data to gain power and influence (and of course money), the little guys – the archives and research institutes and museums and libraries – we see an opportunity to support users. And it’s not the big internet giants fighting to make the ethics of web archiving an open conversation. It’s the little guys who strive to put ethics and the rights of users at the centre of the discussion.

We may be David to their Goliath, but we have an important role to play. As the custodians of social memory and knowledge, it is the heritage and research sectors who are responsible for ensuring this valuable record of society and culture and art and science and all of modern life is captured and preserved. And not preserved for the benefit of a few power-hungry Goliaths, but rather preserved for the benefit of the users – the individuals generous enough to share their stories and experiences and knowledge and talent. And of course, for the generations to come.

While the speakers at the Forum this week rarely (if ever) make mainstream news, they are striving to counter the misuse of web content with the rigorous development of ethical practices. They are engaging the community at large and opening the conversation for everyone to see. At this time of uncertainty, when users see their personal interactions online turned into a tool against them, it’s critical that archives and libraries and other ‘little guys’ advocate for ethical practices and hold to account the companies and organisations developing the tools and methods for harvesting and studying user-generated data.

To follow the conversations this week at the National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web, follow #eaw18 on Twitter or give me a cheeky follow @sdaythomson. Don’t see your burning question broached on the Twitter feed? Send ‘em on! The more voices are heard, the bigger our David to their Goliath.

If you don’t do the Twitter thing, leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to keep you apprised of the goings-on of the Forum here, on the DPC blog. 

Slides from the Data Sharing workshop with Ed Summers and Shawn Walker (pdf).

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