It occasionally happens that people will call or e-mail The Star with an odd request: They want us to purge the historical record (can you imagine it?) of facts that may not reflect well on them.
The most common scenario is that a former Oneonta college student, who is now in the dog-eat-dog world of job hunting and ladder climbing, out of curiosity decides to Google his or her name.
Whoa! Look at what pops up at the top of the list of links: a Daily Star police blotter from three years ago listing the former student as charged with underage drinking, disorderly conduct, open container or a noise violation.
And then they start panicking.
Except for the ``dis-con,'' the charges mentioned above are fairly minor and are lodged against hundreds of students in Oneonta every year. In fact, at the time, the charge may have been viewed as sort of a notch in one's college student six-shooter. (Of course, there was a downside: having to ask Mom or Dad for $100 to pay the fine.)
OK, so our student goes to court, pays the fine, attends a few LEAF alcohol classes and figures that's the end of it _ until that Google search a few years later, and perhaps right before an important job interview.
That's when we get a call from the former student who innocently figures we can just go into our website and delete that old police blotter item from our archives. And he usually assumes it will be done just for the asking _ or demanding _ as if we could or would arbitrarily change any fact in stories from the past.
We have to explain that we do not alter our digital archives, just as we cannot go into our newsprint paper archives or microfilm rolls and clip out some item so that future generations will not see it.
``Yes, but I don't want it there. Don't I have any say in this?'' is often his response.
After being told, ``No, you don't,'' sometimes he'll get angry and talk about getting a lawyer. Of course, deep down he realizes that would be pointless and foolish.
Of course, such requests could occur only in the digital age, when it is indeed possible to change our historical record. And the electronic record can be altered not only for years-old data but also for postings from hours and minutes ago in this age of the instantaneous flow of news and information.
And the simple request for a newspaper to delete a three-year-old police blotter entry raises issues that will become especially meaningful in the future, as the record of our lives and world events becomes more digital. Someday, perhaps, the record will be entirely digital.
As we move more deeply into this brave new digital world, our understanding of totalitarian states controlling the news and the history books is becoming obsolete because the digital word can be changed in ways that the printed word never could.
We've often heard presidents, such as George W. Bush, react to popular criticism by saying they will be vindicated by history. What they mean by history, of course, is the recognized authority of those documenting and judging the historical record of an earlier time.
Looking back from a generation ahead, Bush assumes, his decision to invade Iraq and overthrow its government will be viewed by most historians as a positive action in the larger context of events. Indeed, the wrong kind of leader and the wrong kind of government could make sure that the history books do exactly that.
And in the digital age, such a task becomes easier. Reports on the opposition to the Iraq war could be purged from the record as simply as deleting a police blotter entry.
We're a long way from having a Big Brother in charge of the Internet, which has been relatively free at its youthful stages. But once all our media are websites and blogs, control could be much easier.
In fact, there's a battle waging now over the power of Internet service providers to regulate the free flow of websites. Big corporations operate most broadband services, and they have the ability to block or promote certain kinds of content. Sometimes, they do it at government's urging, such as with child pornography.
A bill in Congress, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, is still being debated, as ISPs and government fight over who should have control, and how much of it, over online content. So far, many lawmakers are fighting to uphold the kind of Net freedom we've been used to having.
The Federal Communications Commission just ordered one ISP, Comcast, to stop filtering some websites from its subscribers. So far, the government seems on the side of freedom.
But if some diabolical alliance should develop in the future between government and corporations, we may be in trouble. When journalistic ethics lose the power to keep the record straight, and that police blotter item or other historical fact is deleted or blocked, then we'll have achieved the equivalent of a book burning, 21st-century style.
We have to do what we can to make sure that doesn't happen.
Cary Brunswick is managing editor of The Daily Star. He may be reached at (607) 432-1000, ext. 217 or at firstname.lastname@example.org