Why Was the Information Removed from Online?

NOTE: This is a slightly updated version of an article I published four years ago. The subject arose again recently so I decided to republish this for the benefit of newer readers who did not see the earlier article. I also updated some of the text to better describe newer developments.

Several newsletter readers have sent messages to me expressing dissatisfaction with records that were available online at one time but have since disappeared. I am offering this republished article as an explanation about why we should not be surprised when that happens. I will also offer a suggestion as to making sure you keep your own copies of online records that are valuable to you.

Two newsletter readers sent email messages to me recently expressing dissatisfaction that a set of images of vital records has been removed from a popular genealogy site. Indeed, removal of any online records of genealogical value is sad, but not unusual. Changes such as these are quite common on FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Ancestry.com, Fold3, Findmypast, and many other genealogy sites that provide images of old records online. Removal of datasets has occurred dozens of times in the past, and I suspect such things will continue to happen in the future. I thought I would write a brief explanation.

Contracts

In most cases, information of genealogical value obtained from government agencies, religious groups, museums, genealogy societies, and other organizations is provided under contractual agreements. The contracts specify what information is to provided, how it is to be made available, and what price the web site owner has to pay to the provider for the records. All contracts also have a defined expiration date, typically 2 years or 3 years or perhaps 5 years after the contract is signed.

When a contract nears expiration, the two parties usually attempt to renegotiate the contract. Sometimes renewal is automatic, but more often it is not. Maybe the information provider (typically an archive) decides they want more money, or maybe they decide they no longer want to supply the data to the online genealogy service. For instance, in the time the information has been available online, the information provider may have learned just how valuable the information really is. The information provider may decide to ask for more money or may even refuse to provide the information any more since the provider may have a NEW plan to create their own web site and offer the same information online on their new site for a fee, hereby generating more revenue for the provider than that of the expiring contractual agreement.

Sure, that stinks for those of us who would like to have the information everywhere; but, it makes sense to most everyone else. I am sure the budget officer at most any state or local government archive thinks it makes sense.

Every contract renegotiation is different, but it is not unusual to agree to disagree. The contract ends, and the web site provider legally MUST remove the information from their web site. The same thing frequently happens to all the online sites that provide old records online.

GDPR

Another issue that has become a problem recently is the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). These new rules apply to all public records in Europe. These regulations arose because of the concept of the “right to be forgotten,” mostly concerning people who had legal problems in the past but have since reformed and do not want the old records to constantly create new problems. The regulations are generic and open to various interpretations. While not specifically requiring information about ancestors of 100 years ago or even earlier to be removed from public view, many people and organizations have taken a conservative approach and deleted any record sets that are even slightly questionable under the new rules.

A full discussion of the GDPR would consume hundreds or even thousands of web pages so I won’t attempt that here. Instead, you can find many online articles that address the issues created by the GDPR by starting at Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Data_Protection_Regulation and then moving on to https://duckduckgo.com/?q=gdpr&t=hi&ia=news.

One problem for web publishers is how to create two separate services: one to display European records that comply with the GDPR and also create a second service that displays records from the rest of the world. Some web publishers have simply removed ALL records that might not comply with the GDPR regulations, regardless of the geography involved.

The moral of this story

If you find a record online that is valuable to you, SAVE IT NOW! Save it to your hard drive and make a backup copy and save it someplace else as well. If there is no option to save, make a screen shot and save it on your hard drive and save another copy, either in the cloud or some other place off-site where it will last for many years. Just because you can see the record online today does not mean that it will be available forever.

7 Comments

If a database is not subject to copyright law, the United States and some other jurisdictions do not recognize the “sweat of the brow” doctrine. In other words, just because someone put in a lot of work and money to create something useful (for example, compiling factual information to create a directory) does not necessarily make the end result protected by copyright law. See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweat_of_the_brow#United_States
Nonetheless, a reputable genealogy website would probably still not use this type of information without permission. First, such data would have to be blocked from being accessed from countries that DO recognize “sweat of the brow” principles. Second, as new lawyers quickly learn, doing what is technically legal is not necessarily the same as doing what is ethically proper.

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One could try the “WayBack Machine” on Internet Archive.org. I was able to locate some birth records that were lost when a website was abruptly taken down.

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Phyllis W Bickley July 29, 2020 at 6:18 pm

I learned the hard way to save EVERY record and am thankful after loosing a few records when websites closed down. So I went through ALL my records and for those I had not saved to my computer, went back to the websites to find a few had closed but made sure to save everything I could find. About that time I had found a few records for my husband’s family on a DAR chapter local where they had lived. A few years later found out the local site had closed. Fortunately I had saved those records. Lesson learned.

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Wow, relative newby here. Talk about smashing my rose-colored glasses. Here I thought I was part of this giant new digital genealogy wave-“before long it will all be on the web!” -and it will help millions find long lost distant relatives! As a library type person, I am at a loss why these should be allowed to be hidden at all. Thank you Dick for your article. I have not seen anything like it anywhere before. A+

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A kind woman in Italy found records for me there. Her emails are on a crashed PC. I put notes on my Ancestry tree thinking they were safe there. Ancestry changed to a new system. All of my notes including names of godparents completely disappeared. I did add the names to my family tree so I have those. I am having to go through original Italian records at Family Search which is actually going well, but, personal notes in online family trees are apparently expendable.

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If I save a record and then it is taken down because a contract ended, or such, will I be liable if I publish an image of this record to another website such as Ancestry.com?

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Regarding the European GDPR:
“These regulations arose because of the concept of the “right to be forgotten,” mostly concerning people who had legal problems in the past but have since reformed and do not want the old records to constantly create new problems.”
That is not quite the point. The main idea of these regulations is that first, every living person has a right to know exactly what information about them is being stored on the internet, and second, they have to agree to it being there, to “opt in”. An example is that before you can use most sites today, you have to agree to “cookies” being stored about your use of the site (and have a way to find out exactly what information this is if you want). Or if the site wants you to enter any personal information such as your name and email address, you have to agree, or you can’t use the site. It’s about transparency.
But as you say, many companies and websites are finding this to be too much effort to figure out and implement, especially with all the liability issues involved, and are removing records instead.

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