Canadian media organizations grapple with requests to ‘unpublish’ articles

TORONTO – The relief Martin Streete felt the day he got out of court, a free man is eroded with every click of the Google search button.

Every time he searches for his name he is faced with a 2011 headline announcing criminal charges he never had to face in court.

Streete said he was arrested in 2011 after an alleged sexual assault in Regina, because he fit the description provided by the complainant. Less than a year later, the charges against him were stayed and the case was dropped.

But local newspaper reports of the initial arrest cost Streete his job and, he said, continue to limit his job prospects years later.

“These articles, they are damaging,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Regina. “I think that’s the main reason I couldn’t get back to work right away because employers, even before I have an interview, are doing research.”

This is an issue that Canada’s leading media ethics body is addressing. The National NewsMedia Council, a self-regulatory body for English-language media in all provinces except Quebec and Alberta, recently began surveying its more than 500 members on how to handle cases like that of Streete.

Council Chairman John Fraser said the media were increasingly faced with requests from people asking for their names to be erased from previously published stories. Unlike some jurisdictions, Canada does not have formal guidelines in place to deal with such situations.

In Europe, for example, a 2014 decision of the highest court in the European Union allows citizens to request the deletion of personal data that “appears inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purpose for which they have been processed and given the time that has passed. “The content would remain online, but Google would make it difficult to find the material through its search engine.

Three years after the ruling – known as the “Right to Be Forgotten” – Google said it had processed 1.5 million URL removal requests, a third of which had been granted.

The Federal Privacy Commissioner has undertaken a review to see if a similar approach should be taken in Canada. A spokeswoman said the office had invited academics, advocacy groups, information technology specialists, educators and ordinary Canadians, and that a report would be released earlier this year. next.

“We will use what we learn to inform the public debate on online reputation, to better inform Parliament about issues and potential solutions and also to develop our own political position on the right to be forgotten and other forms. remedy in the Canadian context, ”Tobi Cohen said in an email.

Google has made a statement that some of the URLs it processed belonged to “reputable” news sources. The tech giant said all measures implemented in Canada must be accompanied by transparency mechanisms, suggesting the search engine may not be best equipped to assess the merits of a delisting request. .

“By giving the search engine the responsibility of judging what should be ‘forgotten’ under European law, and without having the means to share information with the publisher or even the public about a request for deletion , the public cannot analyze the total impact on the public interest of removing a URL from the list, ”Google Canada wrote in its submission.

“And the incentives for search engines under EU law are skewed towards removal. If a search engine wrongly deletes a particular page, that page drops from its results; if it wrongly refuses to delete a page, the search engine may be subject to civil judgments or regulatory sanctions.

The National News Media Council joined with several other media industry groups in presenting their own brief, arguing that a “right to be forgotten” approach in Canada constitutes a violation of freedom of expression. the press and the Federal Bill of Rights.

Comparing the approach of leaving library books on the shelves while removing listings from its card catalog, the groups argued that neither tech companies nor governments should decide what material stays online.

“In an open society, it is the prerogative of individual citizens, participating in a free market for ideas, who are perfectly capable of deciding such matters themselves”, states the Council’s brief.

Still, Fraser said the industry needs to tackle the issue and suggest best practices for outlets. He said a widespread school of thought dictates that changing factually accurate articles is tantamount to rewriting history, but added that the realities of the online world suggest the need to find common ground.

“We have to adopt some kind of best practice one way or another if we are to be honorable and ethical in our business,” he said.

Several Canadian newspapers currently do not “unpublish” material, but deal with requests to modify or reclassify content on a case-by-case basis. The Globe and Mail’s code of conduct, for example, states that the newspaper’s current practice is to assess such requests by committee, with editors and lawyers assessing the individual situation. The newspaper stated that it “does not generally remove content or remove details such as names from our websites and archives for reasons other than legal ones, but it corrects and updates articles as necessary. there is a material factual error “.

The approach is similar to the Toronto Star, according to public editor Kathy English. In cases where the charges have been withdrawn, English said the newspaper would prominently add an update to the top of the original article. The same practice is currently in place at the National Post, according to Gerry Nott, senior vice president of content.

“We are not in the business of non-publication, but we are in the business of fairness,” Nott said in a statement.

The Canadian Press also does not believe in “unpublishing” material, according to editor Stephen Meurice. When the news agency becomes aware of a substantial change in a story it has produced, it confirms the development before sending a publishable note to its media clients that they can append to the story. The Canadian Press does not publish material directly to the public, but only through the media that subscribe to it.

English, who said they respond to one or two such requests per week, admitted the issue was difficult for the industry to manage.

“I think one of the solutions to this is happening earlier in the process when we consider what we are posting,” she said. “Maybe we could move to a place where we don’t post things that we know we don’t have the resources or the intention to pursue.”

English acknowledged that some news outlets have chosen to omit the names of stories with slim follow-up prospects. Some newspapers, such as the Metroland weekly publications, Brampton Guardian and Mississauga News, said they would consider modifying existing articles to remove the names of people whose criminal charges were withdrawn before the case went to trial.

Editor-in-chief Patricia Lonergan said such changes are always accompanied by a prominent editor’s note revealing that a name has been removed and explaining the reason. She said her articles had established an “ethics committee” that uses internal guidelines to assess the growing number of content removal requests.

“The underlying philosophy is that news agencies don’t rewrite history or suppress news,” Lonergan said. “However, life is not that simple.”

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