"You own your own words," is one of the oldest online maxims. If only it were that simple.

This adage comes from the pre-Internet explosion days, when computer bulletin board systems were how most people communicated online. It was coined by Stewart Brand, co-founder of online community The WELL, in an attempt to make users liable for their postings should libel disputes arise.

But it has also been interpreted to mean nobody else but you should copy and reuse your words online unless you give permission to do so - even though Brand himself opposed this copyright interpretation of what he wrote in his early WELL members agreement.

Though others also agreed with this broader interpretation, not everyone has.

When you launch a Web site, post a blog or participate in Internet discussions, you may think your words will gradually fade away. If after posting online you had second thoughts and took it down, you might assume it's really gone.

But chances are, it's all still up there.

Internet archive systems exist, that in all likelihood, are preserving these things long-term. The best-known Web archive service is the Wayback Machine, part of a larger effort called the Internet Archive. This free service has taken snapshots of the Web at various points in time since 1996. An astonishing 85 billion pages are currently archived.

Archiving is about redundancy, and the Wayback Machine's content 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 world's knowledge repository.

If you don't want your words preserved for posterity, the Wayback Machine lets you opt out. The service has instructions on how to remove previous versions of your site from its archive and also prevent it from making archives in the future.

Another well known archive service is Google Groups - a Web interface to Usenet, the worldwide system of hundreds of thousands of online discussion groups. People can participate in discussions via the Web, e-mail program or a specialized Usenet program.

Google Groups lets you search for and join specific discussion groups, as well as search for current and old posts about specific subject matter; archives go back to 1981. In the same manner as the Wayback Machine, Google Groups lets you remove previous posts from its archive and prevent it from archiving future posts but you must have a free account - preferably the same one used for the posts you want deleted. You can delete posts made with an old e-mail address you no longer have, but it's more cumbersome.

Many other Web sites crawl the Web, Usenet, Yahoo Groups and similar places, and create their own archives, some of which can be found by conducting a keyword search on Google. Some of these sites, however, are pay services, and Google can't access their archives, so there's no way to ensure your words are completely within your control.

Perhaps the best strategy, if you don't want your words to come back and haunt you, is to remember your mother's advice: 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.

 

Reid Goldsborough  |  Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.