For weeks, the public has scrutinized video of Nicholas Sandmann standing face to face with Native American activist Nathan Philips. Now the student wants $250 million from The Washington Post for defamation, according to an article submitted to Reuters. Does Sandmann’s lawsuit illustrate the permanence of the internet?
Footage uploaded to social media showed dozens of students, including Sandmann, standing in close proximity to Philips and a separate group of men near the Lincoln Memorial on January 18. The polarizing videos and photos elicited strong reactions from the public and the news media, some criticizing the Covington Catholic High School students. According to the Reuters article, Sandmann’s lawsuit claims that The Washington Post “wrongfully targeted and bullied” the teen. His lawyers assert The Washington Post did this as part of a partisan political agenda. The footage shows the student wearing clothing with President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Whether we believe that the students, Philips, or The Washington Post acted appropriately or not, the videos and their media coverage paint a picture of a world increasingly unable to let bygones be bygones.
The Vanishing Mercy of Forgetfulness
“It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances,” said Dr. Jeffrey Rosen, Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School. “But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the web increasingly means there are no second chances—no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter from your past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is the first thing everyone knows about you.”
Dr. Rosen offers a lesson from cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger. “In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten,” Dr. Rosen said. The contrasting society, in which everything is recorded, offers no chance to distance ourselves from our past actions.
Modern Answers to Limitless Memory
Is there a way to effectively erase parts of the internet? Many infamous stars of the web likely hope so. Fortunately, several organizations have begun taking steps to counteract online permanence.
Students and faculty at The University of Washington are currently developing Vanish, a research project focused on creating self-destructing digital data. Theoretically, Vanish locks up data with an encryption key and not only throws away the key—but also destroys it. Even if a hacker could replicate the decryption code, the private data should completely erase itself by then.
Additionally, companies have sprung up in recent years to help maintain a business’s online reputation. For example, Reputation.com remains one of the biggest success stories in this emerging niche. “For a fee, the company will monitor your online reputation, contacting websites individually and asking them to take down offending items,” Dr. Rosen said. “In addition, Reputation.com can bombard the web with positive or neutral information about its customers. By automatically raising the Google ranks of the positive links, Reputation.com pushes the negative links to the back pages of a Google search, where they’re harder to find.”
Eventually, the dust will settle in the Sandmann defamation lawsuit. When it does, someone will likely wish they could erase their part in it from existence. Within our lifetime, that wish could become a reality.
Dr. Jeffrey Rosen contributed to this article. Dr. Rosen is Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, the legal affairs editor of The New Republic, and a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is also president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.