The Conservative Party has been widely criticised today after Computer Weekly revealed it has removed all its pre-General Election speeches and news articles from its website and from all web search engines.
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The Tories altered the Robots.txt file on their Conservatives.com site which instructs web crawlers such as Google about what content it is allowed to access. All news and speeches published on that website before May 2010 – the time of the last UK election – have effectively been erased from the web.
Former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott tweeted about Computer Weekly’s story: “How do Tories stop being accused of breaking election promises? By DELETING all pre 2010 speeches & press releases”.
The Conservative Party leadership has said in the past it would use the internet to transform politics, making those in power more accountable to the people. But it wiped even the speeches where it made these claims off its website, and after conducting a PR overhaul of its public message, even wiped them off the main repositories of the internet.
Demonstrating the fragility of the internet's historic record, the Conservative Party scrubbed its internet and news archive from the internet by putting up the block against the software robots that crawl the web for search engines and repositories such as Google and the Internet Archive. The block told them to remove the Conservative archive from their records.
This they did, effectively removing the party's pre-election speeches and new releases from the public face of the internet.
Read the original Computer Weekly story
"The Conservative Party has attempted to erase a 10-year backlog of speeches from the internet, including pledges for a new kind of transparent politics the prime minister and chancellor made when they were campaigning for election."
Click here to read Conservatives erase internet history by Computer Weekly contributor Mark Ballard.
A Conservative Party spokesman said the changes had been done to make the website more appealing.
"The changes we've done to the website are judged by what's most popular. People would rather watch videos than read lengthy texts," he said.
"It's definitely not dumbed down. These changes allow people to quickly and easily access the most important information we provide," said the party further in a written statement.
The spokesman would not say on whose authority the scrubbing had been done. He said it was handled by the party's digital team.
The Labour Party said the erasure was a "cynical stunt" designed to prevent people comparing the government's words against its actions.
Labour quoted from speeches prime minister David Cameron made when campaigning for election, in which he made commitments on the NHS, children’s centres, the environment, public spending, lobbying, bank regulation, child poverty and transparency.
The Conservative web archive had allowed people to search its news and speeches, by MP, back to 2000. It reflected the campaigning rhetoric of the Prime Minister and Chancellor George Osborne, who promised their transparency would change politics.
Now without the historic archive, the website is dominated by party political statements about immigration, crime and taxes.
The British Library's web archive had snapshots of the Conservative web archive going back to 2004, from which it was possible to piece together a complete picture. But the speeches were not picked up by search engines, and the archive was hard to reach.
The San Francisco-based charitable Internet Archive removed its past archive of Conservative news and speeches in respect of the Party's exclusion order.
The Internet Archive's legal guidance said this was in keeping with standard practice on the internet.
"Alexa Internet, the company that crawls the web for the Internet Archive, does respect robots.txt instructions, and even does so retroactively. If a web site owner sets up robots.txt on the site, the Alexa crawlers will stop visiting those files and will make unavailable all files previously gathered from that site," it said.
The Internet Archive started replacing missing Conservative speeches after Computer Weekly made enquiries.
Some of the Prime Ministers' speeches were available individually, after painstaking searches. But the internet record was sparse. His 4 July 2007 speech to the British Phonographic Industry, for example, was also removed from the BPI website. But it was copied in a Music Week posting of the time.
Cameron’s 11 October 2007 speech to the Google Zeitgeist conference was copied on Conservative Home.
Cameron made transparency and the levelling power of the internet two central themes of his campaign for government.
"It's clear to me that political leaders will have to learn to let go," he told the 11 October 2007, Google Zeitgeist Conference in San Francisco. "Let go of the information that we've guarded so jealously."