This maxim comes from the pre-internet explosion days when computer bulletin board systems were how most people communicated online. It was coined by Stewart Brand, the founder of the popular service The WELL, to try to place responsibility for what was being posted on those people doing the posting and not on him in case of libel disputes.
But it has also been interpreted to mean that nobody else but you should copy and reuse your words online unless they have your permission to do so, even though Brand himself opposed this copyright interpretation of what he wrote in his early WELL member agreement.
Fortunately, others have also agreed with this broader interpretation of what people can do with your words—but not everybody.
When you put up a website or blog or participate in internet discussions, you may think that your words, whether they’re hasty or wise, will gradually fade away over time. But internet archive systems exist that, in all likelihood, are preserving them long term.
The best-known web archive service is the Wayback Machine (www.archive.org/web/web.php), part of a larger effort called the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). If, in the past, you put up a website or blog then later had second thoughts and took it down, chances are it’s preserved through the Wayback Machine.
This free service has been taking snapshots of the web at various points in time since 1996, with an astonishing 85 billion pages currently archived. Archiving is all about redundancy, and the content of the Wayback Machine is mirrored, appropriately enough, at the New Library of Alexandria in Egypt. The original Library of Alexandria, founded by the Greek rulers of Egypt around 300 B.C., was designed to be the repository of the entire world’s knowledge.
If you don’t want your words preserved for posterity, the Wayback Machine lets you opt out. The service offers detailed directions on how to remove previous versions of your site from its archive and prevent it from making archives in the future (www.archive.org/about/exclude.php).
Another well-known archive service is Google Groups (http://groups.google.com), previously called Deja News and before that DejaViews. Google Groups is a web interface to Usenet, the worldwide system of hundreds of thousands of online discussion groups. People can participate in these discussions through the web, through their email programs, or through a specialized Usenet program.
The Google Groups website is most useful in letting you search for and join specific discussion groups as well as search for current and old posts that you or others have posted about specific subject matter, with archives of posts dating back to 1981. Google Groups provides means to remove your previous posts from its archive and to prevent it from archiving future posts, but, as with the Wayback Machine, you have to take matters into your own hands.
To remove your posts from the Google Groups archive, you have to create a free account with it (it’s best to do so using the same email address you used for the posts you want deleted). You can have it delete posts you made with an old email address you no longer have, but this is more cumbersome. For details on how to do this, read “How do I remove my own posts?” at http://groups.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=46493.
Google Groups also lets you prevent your posts from being archived in the first place with instructions at http://groups.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=46487.
Your words may also be archived at any website discussion groups and Yahoo! Groups email discussion groups you’ve participated in. Some website discussion groups let you remove your posts yourself. But you may need to, as with Yahoo! Groups, ask the webmaster or group moderator to remove any given post for you.
There are numerous other websites that crawl the web, Usenet, Yahoo! Groups, and similar places and create archives themselves. You can find some of them through a relevant Google search, typing in as key words any distinctive phrases you remember from any posts you’ve made. Some of these sites, however, are pay services, and their archives won’t be accessible to Google. So there’s no way to ensure that your words are completely within your control.
Perhaps the best strategy, if you don’t want your words to come back to haunt you, is to remember your mother’s words: Think before you speak. Another option is to use a pseudonym or “handle.”
The flip side of internet archive services is their usefulness in helping you find what might otherwise have been lost.