Web Scrubbing


In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell wrote:

Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

Orwell’s concept that governments could re-write history to secure political obedience was chilling. But if reading 1984 caused disquiet, one could always make a cup of tea, relax and be comforted by the thought that it was just a work of fiction. But is it?

Unfortunately, Orwell predicted the future with disturbing accuracy.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Governments harness the internet as a vehicle for their propaganda, but they also realise that, as their message becomes globally available, they become potentially accountable.

The solution? Take advantage of the transience of electronic blips. And so we now see the rise of ‘web scrubbing’ the regular manipulation, by selective removal and creative editing, of Government information on the internet. Americans have been aware of the problem for years, but it hasn’t registered in Australia yet, even though it’s going on right now.

In December 2003, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank reported that the Bush Administration had been touching up history:

White House officials were steamed when Andrew S Natsios, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said that US taxpayers would not have to pay more than $1.7 billion to reconstruct Iraq which turned out to be a gross understatement of the tens of billions of dollars the Government now expects to spend .

The Government later purged the offending comments by Natsios from the Agency’s website. The transcript, and links to it, vanished.

Milbank also noted that after the insurrection in Iraq proved more stubborn than expected, the White House edited the original headline on its website of President Bush’s 1 May 2003 speech, ‘President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended,’ to insert the word ‘Major’ before combat. She went onto give further examples of web scrubbing on Administration websites for anything vaguely sensitive, with passwords now being required to access even unclassified information.

A paper by Susan Nevelow Mart, a California Reference Librarian and Adjunct Professor of Law, ‘Let the People Know the Facts: Can Government Information Removed from the Internet Be Reclaimed?’ also describes instances of information disappearing from government websites at an alarming pace, generally in the name of ‘national security.’ In reality, much of the information removed has little effect on national security, but its loss deleteriously affects vitally important public issues, such as local environmental contamination, women’s health and employment parity and civil rights issues.

How can this be permitted to occur in a 21st-century democracy with allegedly responsible and accountable government?

There is clear evidence that ‘web scrubbing’ is well-entrenched in Australia. We must be alert for the removal of unclassified information from our Federal Government’s websites because, if the Federal Government cannot or will not explain its editing practices, we should assume that the deleted material is politically sensitive or embarrassing.

After the June 2006 US Supreme Court ruling that the Bush Administration’s Military Commissions at Guantánamo Bay were illegal and must be abandoned, we saw the removal of David Hicks’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) from the Attorney-General’s website.

Fortunately, the text of the FAQs had been posted on the ‘Fair Go For David’ website. The FAQs have since returned to the Attorney-General’s website, but compare and contrast for yourself.  

Next, consider the ongoing debate about the allocation of GST revenue. The Australian States agreed to a GST under an agreement that the Federal Government says required them to abolish a certain number of taxes by 2005. The States say they have complied with their obligations under the agreement, which required them to ‘review’ taxes. The Federal Government, and in particular Peter Costello, says ‘review’ means ‘abolish.’ But the link to the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Reform of Commonwealth-State Financial Relations has been removed from Howard’s website.

Rewriting history. Image thanks to Carl Gopalkrishnan

Who is right? How can we tell if we can’t access the actual agreement?

And a final example: in 1997, just days before the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the Prime Minister announced a $180 million, five-year package of measures under the heading ‘ Safeguarding The Future: Australia’s Response to Climate Change .’ He argued that this package represented a ‘balanced and far sighted approach’ to answer the challenge of climate change, that would deliver a ‘reduction of a third in our expected net emissions growth from 1990-2010 from 28 to 18 per cent in that period.’ Howard’s detailed, 16-page statement was proudly published on his website and was still accessible about six months ago.

With the climate change debate now galvanising popular opinion, it would be most interesting to read Howard’s statements from 10 years ago and see whether the reduction he promised is being achieved. Unfortunately, that speech has now been removed from Howard’s website even though it is referred to in other documents such as the Report of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee ‘The Heat Is On: Australia’s Greenhouse Future.’

Similar web scrubbing occurs in the private sector. You will recall that in the course of the Cole Inquiry into the AWB it became public knowledge that Tigris Petroleum and BHP-Billiton formed a joint-venture partnership in Iraq and were working on two projects with the Iraqi Oil Ministry. BHP-Billiton apparently authorised Tigris to conduct all its relationships with Saddam Hussein’s regime from September 2000 until the dictator’s removal in 2003. Under the deal, BHP-Billiton retained the right to participate in any projects captured by Tigris once sanctions against Iraq were lifted. Apparently, a lot of information was available on Tigris’s website, but before the AWB inquiry commenced it was reported that the company’s website had been shut down.

What one thinks of companies that engage in web scrubbing depends on one’s views about corporate ethics and social responsibility, In our modern, ‘free-market’ world it undoubtedl
y happens all the time and most people probably just don’t care. As economists and financial analysts say, ‘corporations are responsible to their shareholders.’

But governments engaging in web scrubbing is completely different. Our Government is responsible and acccountable to all of us. But instead of stating its position and explaining any later deviations, we have a Government that wishes to edit and manipulate history to create an illusory veneer of consistency: ‘We have nothing to explain; we were right all along.’

Howard’s Government says it’s proud to stand on its record, but how can we know that record without having access to comprehensive historical information that has not been tampered with? If the Government erases statements spruiking failed strategies and unachieved goals, how are we to assess its achievements and failures?

These questions are particularly significant with the Federal election coming up and with the increasing number of back flips being performed in Canberra. The instances I have described must be a miniscule portion of the web scrubbing that has actually been carried out.

The way to deal with this is quite simple. All we need is a central repository to record and store a permanent record of all government web postings easily achievable with modern data storage that is accessible to all citizens.

Or perhaps we should follow New Zealand’s lead and introduce our own Federal Public Records Act that ‘provides a legal framework under which public records are created, stored, preserved, disposed of and made accessible.’

Either way, if any restriction of access is to apply to historical records it should only be on the basis of a demonstrable threat to national security.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.