Aug 23, 2019

Right to be Forgotten

In an online world, that story about you lives forever. The tipsy photograph of you at the college football game? It’s up there. That news article about the political rally you were marching at? It’s up there. A DUI? That’s there, too. But what if ... it wasn’t.

In Cleveland, Ohio, a group of journalists are trying out an experiment that has the potential to turn things upside down: they are unpublishing content they’ve already published. Photographs, names, entire articles. Every month or so, they get together to decide what content stays, and what content goes. On today’s episode, reporter Molly Webster goes inside the room where the decisions are being made, listening case-by-case as editors decide who, or what, gets to be deleted. It’s a story about time and memory; mistakes and second chances; and society as we know it.

This episode was reported by Molly Webster, and produced by Molly Webster and Bethel Habte. 

Special thanks to Kathy English, David Erdos, Ed Haber, Brewster Kahle, Imani Leonard, Ruth Samuel, James Bennett II, Alice Wilder, Alex Overington, Jane Kamensky and all the people who helped shape this story.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

To learn more about Cleveland.com’s “right to be forgotten experiment,” check out the very first column Molly read about the project.

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RIGHT TO BE FORGOTTEN FINAL WEB TRANSCRIPT

 

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

CHRIS QUINN: All right, Here's a good one. His -- this is a guy whose murder conviction overturned. But he shot and killed somebody. I mean, this is violence, right? It ends up not being a crime, but he took somebody's life with a gun.

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. And we're gonna start off today with a conversation that happened in a conference room somewhere in Ohio.

 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Let's see. So ...

 

JAD: Okay. So ...

 

MOLLY: Just how I got to Cleveland?

 

JAD: Yeah. Maybe walk us through that part.

 

JAD: Comes to us from our reporter, Molly Webster.

 

MOLLY: So it was like September. We were looking around for stories for something. One of our challenges, like bears or bad news, breaking things.

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

MOLLY: And so I don't know if I've ever mentioned this, but I'm from Ohio.

 

JAD: [laughs] Really?

 

MOLLY: Yeah, I know. It's shocking. And so I thought, "Oh, I'll do -- I'll pull the Ohio card right now. I'm gonna look at this online news site, Cleveland.com.

 

LAURA: But there's nothing in the story that is like harm -- I mean, yes, it says he shot someone, but he did shoot someone.

 

MOLLY: I think I saw a headline on their homepage about the right to be forgotten.

 

CHRIS QUINN: So the information about the case is preserved. It's just when you search his name, it doesn't come up.

 

JAD: Wait. Time out. This is a room full of people trying to figure out if someone has the right to be forgotten?

 

MOLLY: Well, I didn't actually know, so I just emailed the guy ...

 

CHRIS QUINN: Hello?

 

MOLLY: Hello?

 

MOLLY: ... who had written about the experiment.

 

CHRIS QUINN: This is Chris.

 

MOLLY: Chris Quinn.

 

CHRIS QUINN: I am the editor of Cleveland.com.

 

MOLLY: He's basically the head honcho.

 

JAD: Got it.

 

CHRIS QUINN: I started at the Plain Dealer in 1996 as a reporter.

 

MOLLY: So Chris's story is he started out at the print newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And he did -- he was a reporter.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

MOLLY: He did that for about five years, then he moved on to become an editor.

 

CHRIS QUINN: And then in 2013, they created an entirely new newsroom that they asked me to lead.

 

MOLLY: He basically became the editor in chief of their online paper, Cleveland.com.

 

CHRIS QUINN: And what we really were trying to do was to figure out what kind of content does the digital audience want?

 

MOLLY: Once he moved online, it was like the audience was different, the format was different. The speed at which they had to put up stories was different.

 

CHRIS QUINN: We’re putting this up now.

 

MOLLY: But there was one part of the online process that kind of stuck out to him, and it had to do with time and memory.

 

CHRIS QUINN: Yeah. We -- this actually, it began I think it was in 2014 when I first wrote about it.

 

MOLLY: Like, back in the day, if you did something stupid, got arrested and ended up in the paper?

 

CHRIS QUINN: If it's in the paper, as it was for decades, it’s printed in the paper.

 

MOLLY: People would read it in the morning, and then they'd throw it out.

 

CHRIS QUINN: And it drops out of sight. It's not easy to find. I mean, there's some newspapers that -- that kept indexes that would be at the library. But even with those, you'd have to go to the library, know there was an index, look up a person's name and get to it.

 

MOLLY: And if someone really wanted to find it, they’d probably have to spend hours or days, just scrolling through microfiche slides to finally, maybe, discover that thing about you from your past. But now that everything is online, it's there always and forever. So if you're going on a date, it's there. If you're going for a job, it's there. It just never goes away.

 

CHRIS QUINN: It’s right up front forever.

 

MOLLY: So as Cleveland.com started putting up all these stories about, you know, people driving drunk or vandalizing property or streaking across the football field, Chris started getting these emails.

 

[EMAIL: "I am requesting that my name be removed from the January 17..."]

 

CHRIS QUINN: Requests from people to take down stories about them.

 

[EMAIL: "I made a big mistake. Owed up to it and paid for it."]

 

[EMAIL: "This situation has had a horrific effect on myself and my entire family."]

 

CHRIS QUINN: Because they're embarrassed, or it hurts their ability to get jobs.

 

[EMAIL: "The article below appears at the top of any search using my name and the word 'attorney.'"]

 

[EMAIL: “These stories have come up in every job interview I've had in the last five years.”]

 

[EMAIL: "It has hurt my career."]

 

CHRIS QUINN: Or their children are getting older and might find them.

 

[EMAIL: "That article is a nightmare for me."]

 

[EMAIL: "It has caused trauma to myself and my children in our normal lives. I have two daughters, 11 and 14 years old."]

 

CHRIS QUINN: We were the cause of some major suffering.

 

[EMAIL: "I've suffered depression."]

 

CHRIS QUINN: Harming people a lot, and crushing them psychologically.

 

[EMAIL: “I'm just in a corner and I don't know what to do."]

 

CHRIS QUINN: It didn’t feel good. But we didn't address it at the time. We kind of put it aside and didn't act on it.

 

JAD: Why not?

 

MOLLY: Well, I mean, editors all across the country were getting these emails.

 

CHRIS QUINN: But there was a longstanding feeling that we're the first version of history, and that these archives are sacrosanct and you would never change them.

 

MOLLY: Journalists, like, as a profession have this idea that -- that they are the first draft of history or the public record. And you just don't mess with that.

 

CHRIS QUINN: And every month I'd get more of these requests from somebody saying, "Your story is wrecking my life. Can’t you please take it down?" And I'd -- you know, every time I'd be hardline. "Yeah, we don't do that." But the number of these continues to increase. And -- and man, when you read them, these are people that are -- that are, you know, imploring you to help them overcome a mistake. And it just -- in the end, you know, we had enough of these in a row where it was, okay, we do not want to be the agent of suffering.

 

MOLLY: So Chris made an announcement. This was the column that I read, and it said something like, you know, “If you’ve had an article written about you, and it was by us, and you want it taken down or, I don't know, your name deleted or something, send us an email and we’ll consider it.” I -- and I just thought, who has the -- like, who has a right to be forgotten, or who doesn't have the right to be forgotten? Who's making those decisions? What are the kinds of things that they're thinking about when they're deciding who to delete and who not to delete? And so when I was talking to Chris, I was asking him all of this. And for reasons I don't entirely understand, he just said ...

 

CHRIS QUINN: I mean, you're welcome to -- to listen in.

 

MOLLY: You know, why don't you just come see for yourself?

 

CHRIS QUINN: We -- we talk it out. Just acknowledging this continues to be very much an experiment.

 

MOLLY: So that brings me into the room.

 

MOLLY: Hey, I’m Molly Webster. Hi. It’s lovely to meet you.

 

MOLLY: So they meet about once a month. When I visited, there were seven people in the room.

 

LAURA: Hi, I’m Laura.

 

MOLLY: I’m Molly.

 

MOLLY: Pretty standard issue conference room. There was the Special Projects Manager, the Social Media Editor, the Public Advocacy Manager, a Crimes Editor.

 

MOLLY: We have Mike and Mark?

 

MOLLY: A former rock critic who is now the head of the culture desk.

 

MIKE: I’m Mike.

 

MOLLY: Mark. Mike.

 

MOLLY: And a sports editor.

 

MOLLY: You're ...

 

DAVID: David.

 

MOLLY: Okay. Okay.

 

MOLLY: We all sit around a long table. Chris outlines the rules of engagement.

 

CHRIS QUINN: We're not gonna name the people as we talk about them. We'll just use the numbers for the cases.

 

MIKE: Defendant number one.

 

CHRIS QUINN: Well, yeah.

 

MOLLY: And everyone has in front of them this document that's about 50 pages. It has 12 different cases outlined, and each case has got the articles attached to it, the statement of the person about what they want removed, is it a name or a mugshot? And a personal plea for why they want it taken down.

 

CHRIS QUINN: All right?

 

MOLLY: Yeah? Yeah, cool.

 

CHRIS QUINN: We ready to start?

 

MOLLY: Yes.

 

CHRIS QUINN: All right. So this is an attorney. I mean, there's one sentence really about him caught up in a -- in another case. It did plea to a misdemeanor and did have it expunged. I mean, this would seem to me to be a no-brainer and ...

 

LAURA: But he's an attorney charged with obstruction of justice. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.

 

CHRIS QUINN: A misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice [BLEEP].

 

MOLLY: Quick note. For a morass of legal and ethical reasons, we are going to try to keep all the people we talk about anonymous. So you're gonna hear a number of bleeps.

 

CHRIS QUINN: A notorious case. He was a minor figure in it, but the other two attorneys were ...

 

LAURA: I'd want to know. What if I was, like, hiring a lawyer? I'd want to know that this happened.

 

CHRIS QUINN: You’d want to know that he would obstruct justice on your behalf ‘cause it gets you off [laughs].

 

LAURA: I think it’s -- that it’s a public service to leave his name up. So that people know. No?

 

DAVID: I disagree, only because of the paucity of information that's in this story about it.

 

MIKE: And that's all there is.

 

DAVID: That's it. I mean, you have no context. You don't know what ...

 

LAURA: He's pleaded guilty to something.

 

DAVID: Yeah, but -- but he's saying ...

 

MOLLY: So one of the first things that happened was that they started getting in these arguments about how much value an article had, and whether or not it was serving a public good.

 

KELLY MCBRIDE: That’s the -- that’s the use that journalists point to. We do need names. We need to put names to these arrests because it’s part of the public record.

 

SN: This is Kelly McBride. She's an ethicist at the Poynter Institute.

 

KELLY MCBRIDE: I did have this experience where my kid was on a soccer team. And there was this coach who seemed really questionable to me in his behavior and the way that he acted around the kids. And, you know, sure enough on the mugshot site in my local hometown, this guy showed up for domestic violence. And I -- you know, so I went to the athletic director and I was like, "Hey! This guy can’t be working for us." And that’s the -- that's the use that journalists point to, is that you should be able to find out the bad information about somebody because you might be considering employing this person around your children.

 

MOLLY: Or really, employing them at all. And ...

 

MIKE: I do get the idea ...

 

MOLLY: Back in the room …

 

MIKE: You know, the whole sense of, like, if I'm one of his customers, I would probably want to know that.

 

MOLLY: There was a lot of debate. Is this thing the lawyer did bad enough that all of us need to know about it?

 

MIKE: But, he's still licensed to practice law, right?

 

CHRIS QUINN: Right.

 

MIKE: I mean ...

 

CHRIS QUINN: He didn't lose his law license.

 

MIKE: I mean, there -- the bar here, I mean they're pretty thorough about, you know, looking at this stuff and deciding whether somebody is fit to practice law, you know? I mean, the bar didn't do anything to him.

 

MOLLY: So one of the big questions is how do we make that judgment? Should we follow the courts? You can hear them putting a lot of weight on whether or not a court has sealed or expunged a record, which is basically the court making this decision to remove the case from its own record.

 

CHRIS QUINN: I mean, this is sealed. We're relying on a court that said, "Yes, you've done your time. You can have it sealed." So I -- we would need a very strong argument here not to do that. You want to make your argument stronger, Laura?

 

LAURA: I mean, no, I guess.

 

CHRIS QUINN: Does anybody want to make a strong argument here? All right.

 

MOLLY: [whispers] A lot of head shaking.

 

MOLLY: In the end, they decided that this lawyer dude had the right to be forgotten. And so they just sort of like -- whoosh whoosh -- vanished his name from the article. And that was one of the simpler ones. Like, after that things definitely got tougher, because some of the cases they talked about were so complicated. Like, someone who killed somebody, and then it was labeled self-defense.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

MOLLY: And I was like, well, that's -- I mean, it's not murder-murder, but that's, like, still killing someone.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: Like, does that person have the right to be forgotten? And then one of the hardest cases ...

 

CHRIS QUINN: All right, on the fourth one. He did have it expunged.

 

MOLLY: Was actually a cop. His record was sealed.

 

CHRIS QUINN: But, you know, it is a police officer. It’s theft in office ...

 

MOLLY: But over the course of a few years, he lied on his time sheet and walked away with thousands of dollars.

 

CHRIS QUINN: We've said on the front end of this, that sex crimes, violence crimes and corruption we’re -- we’re much less likely to do this. So I guess this comes down to would you view this as corruption, or do you view this more as a guy who was theft in office kind of thing?

 

MOLLY: The cop, in his email plea to the group, he said basically, “Look, I’ve been on the force for many years, I’ve never had an issue. I shouldn’t have done this, I know that. But this was just one mistake.”

 

MARK: You know, this was not some elected official. This was not use of force. You know, I mean, this guy got -- this guy was skimming overtime, you know? I think -- but again, you know, when the firefighters were having time stuff too, I mean that was a big problem. So it's -- but this is one guy doing one thing. I -- like, I'm so back and forth on this one.

 

CHRIS QUINN: But he didn't -- he didn't abuse his authority as an officer. He stole from his employer. I mean, this is like any other theft.

 

MIKE: Yeah, but I hold him to a higher standard for being a cop in the first place.

 

MOLLY: It was interesting. You could see people's just, like, opinions shift.

 

DAVID: This was a -- this was not a momentary lapse in judgment. This went on for [BLEEP] years it looks like, right?

 

CHRIS QUINN: Yeah.

 

DAVID: And it's only been [BLEEP] years since this story ran. And so I don't know, that means something to me. Like, this was an ongoing thing about what he had going. He'd taken the money, the extra money.

 

MIKE: And I'm with Mark. Like, the public trust issue here. You know, this isn't some, you know, water department guy skimming copper off the, you know, some job site. Like, this is a police officer stealing overtime over the course of [BLEEP] years. I mean, that's ...

 

DAVID: A veteran cop.

 

MIKE: A veteran as he described himself, I believe. But I think that it’s -- yeah. I mean, I guess I see that.

 

LAURA: I don't know. I first read this and I was like, "Yes, I think we should let him be forgotten." But now I'm kind of on the other side. Like, I think -- because it's not a ton of money, he's not a public threat to people, but because he is in a position of trust, in a public position, taxpayer money, I think you guys are right when you’re saying he should be held to a higher standard.

 

CHRIS QUINN: Well, but, but remember, to get back to our central question. Is the value of having his name there greater than the pain it's causing him for being there?

 

MOLLY: Again and again, Chris just steered the conversation back to that question, which is does the value of this article up outweigh the harm it's causing someone? But the trick with that question is how do you know what information will be valuable in the future?

 

DAVID: I mean, if we put this story behind a wall and other police departments don't see it, what stops him from going to be -- to get a job? If he gets it sealed and this story goes away, other -- other offices might not be ...

 

CHRIS QUINN: I wonder if he lost his certification. We should look that up. We should do the research, because if -- I mean, we're talking about another Tamir Rice case.

 

[NEWS CLIP: That's 12 year old Tamir Rice waving …]

 

MOLLY: Hovering over the conversation was what happened to Tamir Rice.

 

[NEWS CLIP: 12 year old Tamir Rice ...]

 

[NEWS CLIP: … holding a toy gun.]

 

MOLLY: So in 2014 in Cleveland, police officers shot and killed Tamir Rice after they saw him holding a toy gun.

[NEWS CLIP: The two policeman said that Rice was warned three times to show his hands. But no bystander heard that or any warning before the shots.]

 

MOLLY: I did not know this, but the cop who shot and killed Tamir Rice, before he worked in Cleveland, he worked at another police department where he was deemed unfit to serve. And then when the Cleveland Police Department was hiring him, they didn't dig into his records and then the other police department didn't, like, offer the records. And since it had never been a news story that was Google-able, like, no one knew about it. So he was hired.

 

CHRIS QUINN: If -- if all records of this disappear, and he applies to be a cop again, you’re -- it would be basically our fault that he's able to do bad things.

 

MOLLY: And so in this case, one of the thoughts in the room is ...

 

CHRIS QUINN: What if one of these people does something horrendous, right? What if in a future year, you know, they go in and, you know, kill 17 people? Wouldn't you want to know about their past transgressions?

 

MOLLY: I actually talked about this with Chris in one of our interviews.

 

CHRIS QUINN: I mean, wouldn't that make those past transgressions relevant again?

 

MOLLY: And he told me that when they do decide to delete someone ...

 

CHRIS QUINN: We're -- we're keeping a spreadsheet of the names that we've taken out that -- very limited access.

 

MOLLY: Wow. That feels like a crazy, powerful spreadsheet.

 

CHRIS QUINN: Yeah, I know. I -- I ...

 

MOLLY: Is it in a vault or something?

 

CHRIS QUINN: I'm not sure. Look, I keep saying this. This is an experiment and we're not -- we're not there yet.

 

JAD: So in the end, what did they decide to do with the ...

 

MOLLY: With time sheet cop guy?

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: They did not delete him.

 

JAD: Oh. Wow. And was that, like, a unanimous, or was it a, like, split decision?

 

MOLLY: I think -- no, I actually think by the end that once Tamir Rice walked into the room, you could kind of feel the -- the energy shift to the non-deletion side.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

MOLLY: So they just sort of like wrapped it up, decided not to delete him and then it was like onto the next case. Which is a very good one. And we'll get to it after the break.

 

JAD: Okay. Radiolab will continue in a moment.

 

[ALEJANDRA: Hi. This is Alejandra calling from Firestone, Colorado. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org]

 

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. We're back with Molly Webs and the right to be forgotten.

 

MOLLY: Yes!

 

JAD: And I have a question for you.

 

MOLLY: Yes.

 

JAD: The Cleveland.com newsroom, are they the first people to do this situation?

 

MOLLY: No, no. It's happening all across the country.

 

KELLY MCBRIDE: Around the country, newsrooms are tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to deal with this.

 

MOLLY: That's Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride again.

 

KELLY MCBRIDE: Because there are thousands and thousands of people who did one stupid thing, and that is the thing that the internet remembers them for.

 

MOLLY: One of the things I found out was that it is a huge conversation but not a lot of people are openly talking about it. And all of these kind of quiet conversations seem to be happening now because of something that's, like, bubbling up in Europe.

 

JAD: What's bubbling up in Europe?

 

MOLLY: Well, so basically what happened was in Spain, when this guy Mario in 1998, he had basically gone into bankruptcy.

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

MOLLY: At which point, the local newspaper published an announcement about it. And then 10 years go by. Mario cleaned up, got his money back, got his life back on course. And so he reaches out to the newspaper, and he was like, "Hey, I've cleaned up my life. Can you take this bulletin down so it doesn't show up on the internet?"

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

MOLLY: And the newspaper says, "No."

 

JAD: Do you know why they said no?

 

MOLLY: Because I think ...

 

JAD: For the usual reasons?

 

MOLLY: Yeah. We published this. This is local news.

 

JAD: Public record.

 

MOLLY: It's part of our archives.

 

JAD: First draft of history.

 

MOLLY: Done.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

MOLLY: And then he goes to Google and he says, "Hey, can you de-list this from your search engines?" And they say no. And so long story short, he actually takes Google to court, gets all the way up to the European Union Court, which is like the Supreme Court of the European Union. And in 2014, the judges in this European case make a decision that if something is out of date, irrelevant or not accurate, a person can request a search engine to take it down.

 

JAD: So in Europe, you can petition to have things taken off the internet?

 

MOLLY: Yeah, and it's ...

 

JAD: Wow!

 

MOLLY: It is this moment where, like, a new right is established. This is when you start to hear the phrase, "Right to be forgotten."

 

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHÖNBERGER: The unfortunate element of human remembering is that because our brain forgets automatically, we never had to deal with deliberate forgetting.

 

MOLLY: This is Viktor.

 

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHÖNBERGER: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance, Oxford University.

 

MOLLY: I called him up when I was trying to figure out what was happening in Europe.

 

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHÖNBERGER: We can't deliberately forget. If I tell you, please forget that my second name is Michael, you will remember that. It's the exact opposite. And so the problem is we don't know how to disregard memories of our past. We don't know how to forgive if we remember. And so as we become a remembering society, we become an unforgiving society.

 

MOLLY: So he is a strong proponent of policies that help us forget, even just a little bit.

 

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHÖNBERGER: And that's the point that I wanted to make. I'm not in favor of annihilating memories. I'm in favor of putting them in the shoebox and stashing them in the attic. So that if you really want to make the effort to go up there you can take them down. You can read them. Pour yourself a glass of wine and go through them. But you don't stumble over them every day.

 

MOLLY: And at some level I think that's part of the thinking behind the European Union policy. Like, can we just take -- take some of our stuff and put it back in the attic.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

MOLLY: And pretty much everyone I spoke to here said a Mario type of case is coming. I mean, basically the consensus is this is gonna start going to court in the States.

 

JAD: Really!

 

CHRIS QUINN: When the European Union went with a right to be forgotten, you know, I started to look at that, thinking, "Is that -- we shouldn't have a law like that here because of the First Amendment, but is that something as an industry we should -- we should consider?"

 

MOLLY: Chris is like, "We've got to do something, but we don't want it to be a law because of the First Amendment. We still want editorial independence. So why don't we just figure it out on our own?

 

JAD: And this is like, every newsroom figuring it out for themselves?

 

MOLLY: That seems to be the moment that we're in right now. You do really get the sense that's it's, like, on-the-fly, they're figuring it out as they go. But then you think, at what point do rules come into play?

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

MOLLY: If you do everything on a case-by-case basis, by its very nature it is subjective.

 

CHRIS QUINN: All right. This is a good one. It's a college kid who got involved in [BLEEP].

 

MOLLY: So one of the cases that Chris and the other editors talked about while I was there was this college student who got involved in a drug operation. We're not gonna say which drug. And he was doing it with some friends, and we're not gonna say how many.

 

CHRIS QUINN: And this is one of the kids asking us -- again, it's going back. It’s 20-[BLEEP]. It is a college kid doing something very, very stupid. But, you know, what are you -- I mean, it's gonna dog him for the rest of his life if it stays on our site. Everybody knows about it. But this is -- this is a college kid doing something really dumb. I mean, and it's bad. I mean, he was enabling people to do drugs. It's [BLEEP] years later, he's trying to get on with his life.

 

MOLLY: So the first thought you hear in the room, is just, "Oh my God, we were all idiots in college." We should take these articles down.

 

CHRIS QUINN: I didn't have an issue with this one, but if somebody does, speak up.

 

MOLLY: But then, on the other side ...

 

MIKE: There's something to me that's different between [BLEEP] and, you know, selling pot on the side when you're in college or something and getting caught for it. Or even selling drugs -- other drugs. So it seemed to me like [BLEEP] years, I don't know if that's long enough for me to think, like, let's take this down.

 

DAVID: Like, you never did anything stupid in college, I guess.

 

MIKE: Well, I did, but I did not [BLEEP]. Now look, I mean look, I'm the former rock critic, right? So I'm, like, given to, like, give this guy a break. But it seems to me that judging from, like, some of the other cases we've looked at, this is fairly serious.

 

LAURA: He wasn’t one of the ones that said they had -- they were getting clean, right? Like, he wasn't saying I was under the influence of drugs at the time, and -- I mean, that's not an excuse. But ...

 

MOLLY: The conservation turns to, okay, who is he? Does he deserve to be forgotten? And to figure that out, there are a ton of different questions you could ask. You know, is he sober? Is he reformed? Was he sober then? How much time has passed? How much time was he doing it?

 

MARK: Here's the question. Are the other people in here having a difficult time getting jobs? I mean, there's a lot of unknowns here, you know? I mean, all these other people, their lives might be fine. Maybe there's another reason this guy isn't getting jobs, you know?

 

LAURA: Do we know that he hasn't done anything since then?

 

CHRIS QUINN: Yeah, he's clear. And he is seeking to get it expunged. And he's saying it's coming up in every job interview he has, right? Does an employer have a right to know this? Does an employer -- and he is getting it expunged. I mean, another thing we could do is say, "When your expungement's complete, let us know and we'll take it down." But it's [BLEEP] years later. He was in college, he was 25. It wasn't like he was 18.

 

MARK: So remove the fact that this is a clean-cut kid who was going to a private college, and move this scenario to the same age, the same race, but not in college and in some rural community ...

 

MOLLY: And at this point, questions of race and class come into the room. All the editors are white. Most went to college themselves. Is that biasing them in some way?

 

MARK: I mean, would our willingness to forgive this kid be different if the socio-economic issue ...

 

CHRIS QUINN: This isn't about forgiveness. It's about the idea that on our site, because we're so big, when you search for somebody, this is the first thing you find. And we haven't set any kind of economic strata for this. We haven't set a geographic strata. We're considering each case as it comes in. It's this case. Does this kid deserve to have his name removed? You know, is enough time passed, is -- it's not a crime of violence and corruption. I mean, that's really the central question.

 

MOLLY: As you heard, Chris reacted pretty abruptly to the word "forgiveness" being brought into the room.

 

CHRIS QUINN: I don't think we are in a position to forgive.

 

MOLLY: So I asked him about it after the meeting ended.

 

CHRIS QUINN: I think it's almost presumptuous for me to think that I can forgive these people.

 

MOLLY: But -- but I agree, that is -- that is it. But in a sense, you've taken on -- if we acknowledge these people and offer them respite, we'll help the rest of the world do that too. That to me sounds like forgiveness.

 

CHRIS QUINN: Okay. I don't -- I'm not -- I don't feel like we're forgiving the seven people who asked for this relief. I feel like we're -- we're enabling them to carry on with their lives without the baggage of the mistakes they made. Because we're -- society's very judgmental. And if somebody looks them up, sees that they did this. It's a big mark against them. I think what we can do is -- is kind of revert back to the way things worked before the internet, the way it used to be.

 

DEBORAH DWYER: Right. Well...If we think the answer to this is to find a way to unpublish everything that somehow we collectively think ought to be unpublished. That is a pipe dream.

 

MOLLY: I ran Chris's thought by Deborah Dwyer, who is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

DEBORAH DWYER: School of Media and Journalism.

 

MOLLY: I was talking to her because she has been studying journalists and how they're approaching take-down requests in this whole, like, right to be forgotten issue. And basically what she told me is you can only delete so much.

 

DEBORAH DWYER: Yeah. No, we're never going to be able to eradicate our past. That -- that day, that ship has sailed. But the power that we give an arrest report from 10 years ago on a minor offense that some silly child did, and they're now grown up and responsible and attempting to get into law school, people actually have the power to determine how important that is, right? How much weight do we give that? Organizations I talk to said they were considering not covering arrests or court cases -- actual trials -- unless they could see them through their completion.

 

MOLLY: Part of this might be being better about choosing on the front end what types of stuff we want to commit to digital memory.

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

MOLLY: But ...

 

DEBORAH DWYER: Part of this is us shifting our perspectives.

 

MOLLY: Because if you can never totally forget something, you have to learn how to forgive without forgetting.

 

DEBORAH DWYER: Right? But we live in a world of revenge porn and mugshot extortion websites and public shaming. And so is that the type of society we want to be? Because again, something that is ...

 

MOLLY: A type of society that's gonna forgive you for that thing you did 10 years ago.

 

DEBORAH DWYER: Well, likely not right now. But that information, there's never going to be a perfect way to clean up everyone's past. That is, we've got to learn to live with it. And if we can decide maybe that we ought to address it with a little bit of compassion, that gives me hope.

 

CHRIS QUINN: We’re not doing that one. I'm looking for one of the simple ones just to delete. Here's one.

 

MOLLY: So this is just deleting, like, a two-sentence paragraph, maybe. Or one-sentence paragraph that just says his name, this guy's name. Delete.

 

CHRIS QUINN: Then I add a note at the top. And that's that.

 

MOLLY: "This story was updated to remove someone's name in accordance with the Cleveland.com Right-To-Be-Forgotten policy." You stick that right at the top. Oh, you put in a date.

 

CHRIS QUINN: Yeah. Make it italic and say "Note." And then hit save.

 

MOLLY: View on site?

 

CHRIS QUINN: And it's gone.

 

MOLLY: All right. Well, one person's gonna be really happy when he Googles his name today. Because it all just changed.

 

CHRIS QUINN: It all just changed. It'll take me probably, you know, I'll get to all of them by probably -- well, the end of next week, because I'm gonna be out of town on beginning of the week.

 

MOLLY: Cool. That's -- I think this is where I leave you.

 

CHRIS QUINN: All right. When's your flight?

 

MOLLY: Well, I'm gonna stay the weekend. So ...

 

JAD: So what did you walk away from the whole Cleveland experience thinking?

 

MOLLY: That I was confused. I guess one of the things is that you can walk into that room, you're making this decision and you don't have a lot of information to go off of. Like, if you're lucky you have an email, maybe a sealing order and the articles that featured the person. And at times that feels like not enough information. You just think, like, "I want more." And then at other times you think, "Gosh, it would be bad if we had more information, because then I might just start, like, judging this person, and it might actually get more subjective." I don't know. But there's one more chapter to the story. A while, a very long while after I got back from Cleveland I got an email from Chris.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

MOLLY: And it said that that day they had just done another round of right-to-be-forgotten petitions, and that he thought that one of the people would be interested in talking to me about what they did and why they wanted to be deleted. So at that point I called this guy.

 

SETH: Hello.

 

MOLLY: Hello. How are you?

 

SETH: I’m okay. A little nervous, but I’m okay.

 

MOLLY: You made it. Nervous is fair.

 

SETH: I did. I wrestled traffic, so I was a minute late.

 

MOLLY: Let me just make sure everything’s settled on my end. So, I have you until noon, is that right? What time do you need to get back to work?

 

SETH: I can be here longer.

 

MOLLY: Okay.

 

SETH: If need be.

 

MOLLY: Okay, we’ll just roll with it then.

 

SETH: Let me power down my phone, too.

 

MOLLY: So you know how throughout this whole episode we’ve been, like, bleeping out facts? We’re gonna keep doing that with this case. We’ll just, like, hold back some information. In some instances we might change a fact.

 

JAD: Sure. Sure.

 

MOLLY: It is obviously a risk for this guy to be talking to us, and we want to give him the chance of anonymity. But he is up for that risk.

 

SETH: Well, you go on a journey like this as a -- as a person who really never, aside from a speeding ticket, really never interacted with the criminal justice system. And you -- it changes your whole way of thinking, and how you approach life and how you approach each day. And so by me perhaps talking about it, maybe it -- it gets people thinking about it and trying to gain understanding, I guess.

 

MOLLY: So the story of this guy -- should I give him a name? Like, a fake name?

 

JAD: Yeah. Give him a fake ...

 

MOLLY: Call him, like, Seth.

 

JAD: Seth.

 

MOLLY: Okay. So back in the, like, 2000s, 2000-and-teens, Seth was just like living a pretty solid life. He had a good job, a wife, two kids. And then, over the course of a few weeks ...

 

SETH: I exposed myself to two women.

 

MOLLY: Mm-hmm.

 

MOLLY: Once in his neighborhood in front of a woman who was driving by. The cops showed up later that day, but they just sort of gave him a warning.

 

SETH: You know, nothing really happened. And, until [BLEEP] days later when I did it again.

 

MOLLY: This time it was to another woman, and we’ll just say it was at the gym.

 

SETH: And cited by police, and then everything started.

 

MOLLY: Hmm.

 

SETH: I called my wife and I -- and I met her at a local park, and I told her.

 

MOLLY: He tells her what’s happened.

 

JAD: He tells her everything?

 

MOLLY: He tells her everything. And part of what they talked about that day was something that had happened years before.

 

SETH: Yeah, when I was 10 or 11, I was sexually abused. Now it -- I didn’t think of it as abuse at the time. I felt a lot of guilt, a lot of shame. I thought I was in on it. So it was probably okay. You know, that's what I was thinking. And I really didn’t think it had an effect on me. But it did. Again, these are not excuses, but I think the -- really, the most damaging thing was how I was introduced to sex and how that became an issue in me not getting help for that. And again, I’m talking all about me but, you know, I really frightened two women. And I’m just like -- I’m just sorry. I'm just so sorry.

 

MOLLY: Eventually, Seth has to go down to the police station and get, you know, his mugshot taken and actually get charged. Like, misdemeanor charges against him.

 

SETH: This was a couple weeks later when the police officer called and said they were actually gonna file charges. Come down to the police station. I went down. You know, right away I'm like, "Okay, we got to go, we got to go, we got to go." And I was wearing a hoodie and had just woken up, and no thought in my mind was like, they're gonna take a mugshot. But they did, and -- Molly, if you ever get cited or ever get called to the police station, you know, take a shower, wear something nice, because it was a horrible picture. It’s always there. I’m just a couple keystrokes away from my mugshot, from the worst picture I took, the worst day of my life.

 

MOLLY: So if this had just stayed in the court system, no one would have ever seen that mugshot, because, you know, Seth just gets to this point where he's like ...

 

SETH: I just am guilty. I just want my -- I will plead to guilty to everything. I don’t want -- I did it. I want to take responsibility for it. And I’m sorry.

 

MOLLY: He pays a fine, serves probation. We’re told he issues some sort of statement of apology to the women, gets a new therapist. But then, of course, in the midst of this he gets a call from a local newspaper.

 

SETH: Somebody had tipped them off that I had been cited for indecent exposure.

 

MOLLY: From there it was picked up by paper after paper and different, like, online news sites until it was all over the place.

 

SETH: And you think about -- you think about, you know, my parents are still alive. What are they gonna -- they’re gonna read this in the paper. My kids.

 

MOLLY: Yeah.

 

SETH: It's just a lot of shame. And it’s almost like you -- shame is what you deserve.

 

MOLLY: And so, by the time that stuff starts rolling out, he tells his kids. He ultimately loses his job.

 

SETH: And the whole shame thing. So when I would walk around or go to the grocery store, things like that -- and I’m sure it was delusional, but I’m like, "Everybody’s looking at me. They’re pointing it out." You know, again, so my kids, my son goes off to college, meets people. They Google. And, you know, a unique name and a hometown and there I am. So I think that that’s really a big part of the damage is the family. And they don’t -- they didn’t do anything. They don’t deserve any of that.

 

MOLLY: He said a particularly low moment was when his daughter came to him and said, "You’re the number one news story."

 

JAD: Oh, wow.

 

MOLLY: You know how you can see, like, the top news stories for your area if you're in a search engine, if you’re doing, like, Google News or something? Apparently, his story was the first one, and it was his mugshot.

 

SETH: And a really salacious story about me.

 

MOLLY: And not that he didn’t do ...

 

JAD: Yeah, you don’t want to excuse it, for sure.

 

MOLLY: A -- a creepy, dark kind of thing.

 

JAD: Totally.

 

MOLLY: But that's -- that's the heart of the question. Like, how do you weigh the value of us knowing about Seth and what he did against the harm that it's doing to him and his family. You know, in this moment all of us are probably making different decisions in our heads. But here's what actually happened. According to the law, a year after he’s done everything the court asks him to do, he can apply to have his record sealed. Which he did and the judge agreed.

 

SETH: I think I got them finally sealed in May of this year.

 

MOLLY: And no one has access to the judge's thinking, the records are sealed. But not long after that, he saw that Cleveland.com was doing this right-to-be-forgotten thing, and so he was like, "Oh, that could be me. Like, I could do this."

 

SETH: I -- I wasn’t sure if I’d get approved, but I still had hope when I sent it. Tried to craft a good email, really state my case as much as I could.

 

MOLLY: So I have the letter that Seth wrote to the right-to-be-forgotten team at Cleveland.com. And I'm not gonna read the whole thing here, but just to give you a few excerpts. It says, "Years have now passed since my mental crisis and my very public and salacious brush with the law. I am grateful for a few things. The love and support of my family guided me out of the darkness. I am here and not in a cemetery because of them." He continues, "I am also happy that I was able to model for my children exactly how a person should behave after making a monumental mistake. While I would do anything to turn back the clock, alter my actions and spare two women from my frightening behavior, I simply cannot change the past." And it goes on. "I ask that you consider me and my actions for the Right-To-Be-Forgotten Initiative, and that you remove my name and photos from the articles written about me. I’m grateful for this consideration. Thank you."

 

SETH: So, I got an email from Chris saying that we met and we've been -- and you’ve been approved. And he said something like there were mentions and there’s really no way to just take out your name, so we’re just gonna take the stories down.

 

MOLLY: Wow!

 

SETH: Mm-hmm.

 

MOLLY: So I talked to Chris about taking all of the articles down, and he said like, first thing, the case is just so notorious that taking Seth’s name out wouldn’t actually allow him to be forgotten. And so it just made more sense to delete all of the articles. The other thing is it seemed like a case that just kind of fit in to the rules that are emerging in these committee meetings. These were misdemeanors. You know, it wasn’t violent crime. It wasn’t corruption. It wasn’t a celebrity. They thought he seemed apologetic. There had been no other instances. So to them, it seemed like a pretty cut and dry decision.

 

SETH: But I -- you know, I still have -- it was not the only outlet that this stuff appeared in. So I still have a Google problem. But again, like the records being sealed, like every little step and every day that passes, every bit of time, you leave a mistake in the past. And you’re one step closer to a new life, a second chance, something better. And this was a big milestone.

 

ANNIE MCEWEN: Um, I have a question about the women who you exposed yourself to. And I guess ...

 

MOLLY: That’s Radiolab producer Annie McEwen. She was in on the interview with Seth. As far as the women go, they’re anonymous in all the articles and the records are sealed, but it’s their story too. And so at the end of the interview, Annie asked Seth about this.

 

ANNIE: So I’m just trying to put myself in their shoes. And if they wake up to somehow discover that the article about their experience was taken down, do -- do you think about that from their perspective?

 

SETH: I have. I hope -- I hope they don’t think about it, honestly. I don’t know how they -- how they’d think about it. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if -- they might be upset. But I don’t know. I hope -- I hope they don’t think about it.

 

JAD: Thank you, Molly.

 

MOLLY: You're welcome.

 

JAD: That piece was reported by Molly Webster and produced by Molly Webster and Bethel Habte.

 

MOLLY: We have a few people to thank. Kathy English, David Erdos, Ed Haber, Brewster Kahle, Jane Kamensky, and to everyone who shared their story with me.

 

JAD: Okay. Well, I guess we should go. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

MOLLY: I'm Molly Webster.

 

JAD: Thanks for listening.

 

[ELI: Hello. This is Eli from Eugene, Oregon. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Nora Keller, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna and Neel Dhanesha. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Thanks.]



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