For those that think they have gotten away with something that has been documented either in photos, in writing or in video within the last 10 years because a good deal of time has passed, they need to think again.
The web has become the tell-all about those that do good and bad long after most people have forgotten about it.
"The medium is persistant and the content doesn't go away," said Jason Bailey, the webmaster for the Sun Advocate. "It's the nature of the beast."
In the pre-web days something could be printed in the newspaper, and soon the pages it was printed on was being used to line bird cages, or stuffed away in some dusty archive in a library where one would have to spend days searching to find information about who said what, who did what and who was thinking what. That is no longer true.
To dust off a story that is only five years old now, all one has to do is get on an Internet connected computer, and if something was originally placed on the web or has been put there since, it may easily be found.
Now even newspapers that were printed before the advent of the web are starting to appear on the Internet. In recent years the University of Utah gained some grants to digitize many of the newspapers in the state from their inception up to present date.
The archive, called Utah Digital Newspapers, is searchable. At this point papers such as the Sun Advocate (and its predecessors)are on the that web site up to 1932, which is the year the Sun Advocate came into being when the News Advocate and The Sun merged. Other papers, like the Vernal Express, have archives from the beginning right up to present day.
While it is true that someone looking for something may have to search through a lot of data and screens to get exactly what they want, it is still so accessible it is amazing...and scary for some people.
Recently the Sun Advocate got a call from an out-of-state man who said that he had made a mistake a number of years ago and had been in trouble with the law in Utah. He said that he had gone straight now, was a businessman and was trying to make a go of it, but an article about the incident in the Sun Advocate's Web site kept cropping up as people looked him up, and it was causing him problems.
The policy at the Sun Advocate has always been that once something was in the paper, it could only be retracted if it was not true, but if it was true, it would not be changed.
Upon reviewing a web search, the article in question also showed up in a number of other places besides the Sun Advocate's site, including a state Web site. Within the same search results, the staff at the paper discovered that the same man had also been brought up on similar charges in his home state as well as in Alaska - the former in 2007 - and in the northern most state in 2009.
But while it would be impossible to remove all the references, it is also against the paper's policy to do so. It comes down to an issue of credibility, the credibility of reporting and writing history every day.
From the Internet, you can run but you cannot hide - not if someone is really looking for you or what you have done in the past. And even if an agency or business somehow agrees to take something off the Internet for an individual, forget the fact it was removed by them; someone else is bound to have it too.
That's because search engines like Google, Yahoo, MSN and others do a thing frequently referred to as "indexing." It is a process in which little pieces of software called "crawlers" meander through the World Wide Web, pursuing link after link, hopping from one site to another, digging for information to better their search offerings. That process also frequently includes storing a copy of the pages that have been indexed.
"They have what are called little bots that crawl through the sites," said Bailey. "They behave a lot like people that are looking for something. They gather up information from site to site, following link after link, site after site. Many of these indexing activities are for search purposes but some are for archival and research reasons."
But the situation lies well beyond just the realm of newspapers. In these times of information expansion on the web, if a person belongs to a bowling league, their names might be posted as a member or with their teams scores by a teammate or league. If they have delinquent taxes at the county level, their name will be posted on a government Web site. If they are mentioned as someone who was involved in a story on someone's personal Web site, that name will be there for all to see. And the social networking sites, while not generally indexed, still provide fodder for other people's personal sites.
But issues with the Internet extends far beyond what is actually published online.
"Privacy issues are huge," stated Bailey. "Right now Google (and other Internet search engines), while not tracking what each person does as an individual, does track user (web browsing) habits and are (performing) data mining. They are really pushing the privacy line."
Information overload is also becoming a real problem for individuals. It used to be the medium (television, radio, the printed word) sorted out information for the user. Now it can all be there as raw data - the full house bill on health care or every witnesses story to a tragic accident. It goes on and on.
"What the internet has really affected is politics," said Bailey. "Misconduct and behavior that happened years ago when someone was a college student pops up and a politician goes down. The issues on this have been at the top of the political and economic chain. But soon the common person will be affected more and more as well."
Change is inevitable; where it will end no one knows. But the fact is that as the world of information expands, it appears the rights and privacy of the indiviual could be challenged more and more.