It was only two weeks ago that I wrote a post on this blog titled “The risky politics of open government“, highlighting the expectations placed upon any prime minister who declares his administration will be “the most open and transparent in the world.”
The hardest trust to gain is trust that was previously won and lost.
If David Cameron used that openness claim in a speech before the May 2010 General Election, it’s now a lot harder to find the full text of what he said, since the Tories removed links to 10 years of articles from their website, and used the Robots.txt file on their site to also erase them from Google searches and the Internet Archive.
What was the result of Computer Weekly revealing this fact? National newspapers falling over themselves to print lists of Conservative Party promises from now-disappeared speeches that have subsequently been broken.
That’s the downside of claiming to be open – and then trying to remove history.
The Tories were by no means the first organisation to remove articles from the web and they won’t be the last – indeed, Labour has removed most of its archive from the party’s website, but did not go as far as editing Robots.txt, and nor are they the party in power.
But the context of the Tory website deletion has to come from the promise of openness. And their actions do not sit well in that context.
The best comment so far has come from justice secretary Chris Grayling, who told a Sky News reporter that the reason for the deletion was that there is “a limit to how much you can put and keep on your website year after year”.
The Conservatives’ action has highlighted a particular failing of the web – who polices its history?
Every printed publication in the UK from books to newspapers still has to send a physical copy to the British Library to be archived in perpetuity. Just about the only place you can still find electronic copies of those lost Tory speeches is on the British Library’s internet archive – which is not a full record, but simply a series of periodic snapshots of key British websites, and is not directly searchable through Google.
If you want to remove your history from the web, it’s a very straightforward thing to do (apart from certain social media sites – but that’s another story).
Nobody at Conservative HQ would have imagined the storm they would create by deleting their internet history, but the reaction demonstrates how technology is changing politics and giving power to the people.
Even if the Tories claims of being open are proved illusory, thanks to technology politics becomes ever more open to public scrutiny.