Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The purloined blog

I am sympathetic to the desire to disappear off the face of the internet, and believe that people should have the right to be forgotten when this doesn’t interfere with other considerations such as the public interest or the integrity of social and cultural archives. I have also occasionally critiqued the demand that is made of us to be always present and available, even as I’m guiltier than most of complying with it. I derived both great enjoyment and deep resonance from Hito Steyerl’s How not to be seen – a fucking didactic educational .MOV file when I saw it last year in London, and wished that I was practiced in that art.

I have also written positively about the ending of blogs, even when they involve wholesale deletion.

But not all acts of vanishing are the same. Not all acts of personal reinvention are innocent. While this post is not about dirty politics per se, consider Carrick Graham, who abruptly stopped using his Twitter account the day Nicky Hager’s book came out, and just as abruptly resumed the day after the election, soon joining in an attack by Jordan Williams on Otago nutrition researcher Lisa Te Morenga. Graham carried on like this for a few weeks as if nothing had happened, cheering most loudly after the police raided Hager’s house, but it kept getting noticed and eventually he deleted the account. He has now reappeared with a new one, as he is most assuredly entitled to. But what should we make of this attempt to craft a whole new persona?

The case of lawyer Cathy Odgers is even more interesting. Odgers deleted her first blog in 2005, before embarking on the very popular Cactus Kate. This too she deleted in 2013, long before its contents became relevant to stories uncovered by Nicky Hager and other investigative journalists. It was at this later time, however, that Cactus Kate went through a second, deeper deletion, as it now evidently became important to Odgers to remove all existing traces of it. This had the opposite effect to what she might have intended.

Three weeks after Dirty Politics was published, somebody noticed that a series of posts had disappeared from the Whaleoil blog, and put up the list. It included 56 posts starting from 2006 and ending a few days earlier, in August of 2014. You could tell from the URL addresses that they were mostly about Odgers, but since Slater hadn’t bothered to delete them from the Google cache or the Internet archive, you could actually read them and find therein links to Odgers' defunct blog. The links in turn made it easier to find traces of the original posts and the rest of the blog: they highlighted the very thing that the deletion was meant to conceal.

Odgers had done her homework, as you would expect, so Cactus Kate by now had been scrubbed from the internet’s main cache services as well as the Internet Archive, all of which allow content owners to retroactively have their stuff removed and are not bound by other considerations. There was another repository Odgers may not even have known about, however: the National Library, which was granted some years ago the right in legislation to acquire New Zealand blogs along with the rest of its institutional deposits. Sure enough, there it was, the whole blog still intact. I flicked the information off to Matt Nippert, who was investigating the Feeley story among others at the time, and he proceeded to download the material. (I didn’t, as I had no use for it, but I also figured it would be safer with him than with me.)

At some point this surviving version of Cactus Kate must have come to Odgers' attention, and she took further counter-measures. So when I checked a few weeks later I found that the National Library archive no longer allowed to browse the blog online, but required researchers to discuss viewing arrangements with an on-site librarian. Later still, the record disappeared altogether. I asked the Library today about this, and they advised me that
Regarding the deletion of the blog in question, we are in discussion with the author and receiving advice as to its status as legal deposit material.
The legislation, it seems, is open to interpretation – if I had to venture a guess, around what constitutes ‘a New Zealand-based blog’ – and so this peculiar test case has broader implications than those that tie Odgers with the rest of the cast of Dirty Politics. As best as I can tell, the National Library is keen to pursue this distinction and assert its role, which is to make available – and occasionally, in so doing, prevent the destruction of – the published writings of New Zealanders.

The irony here is that Matt Nippert might not have recovered Odgers’ blog if she hadn’t asked Slater to delete those posts. I was reminded here of that Edgar Allan Poe story, ‘The Purloined Letter’, in which Auguste Dupin – the master of deduction on which the character of Sherlock Holmes was modelled – has to find a compromising stolen letter, and discovers it hidden in plain sight on the thief's writing desk, barely disguised among a jumble of papers. The thief did so in order to confound the usual searching methods of the police, which he knew would be conditioned to look only in elaborate hiding places.

This suggests what might have been a better course of action for Odgers: to ask that the Slater posts be subtly changed, or just leave them be. Instead, she called attention to the very thing that the internet – our great reverse censor – is designed to prevent: the removal of information, and the sudden forgetting of who we once were.