Deleting History: Why Governments Demand Google Censor the Truth
“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up
to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could
be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was
any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted
with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record.
All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed
exactly as often as was necessary.” — “1984” — George Orwell
Greetings. It’s all too easy to employ images from George Orwell’s
“1984” when discussing modern society, and particularly issues
related to privacy. Even though I’d wager that most people reading
this posting never have read “1984” all the way through, the mere
mention of the title or the term “Big Brother” is usually enough to
trigger the desired dread — a handy shortcut for a writer, if nothing
But occasionally, we see real life imitating fiction in a way that so
clearly invokes Orwell’s text that resisting its pull is pretty much
Such is the case with the new hyper-privacy initiatives coming from
various governments around the world, including the U.S. itself. Some
of these efforts are aimed at explicitly censoring history, by forcing
search engines (particularly Google), to remove search results that
have become inconvenient, bothersome, upsetting, or otherwise no
longer in keeping with (as Orwell might have said) the desires of the
Party and/or various of its citizens.
This push to retroactively eliminate reality comes in various forms.
Sites that merely link to sites that contain objectionable materials
(e.g., pirated films) are now targets for “takedowns” with a minimum
of due process — some would argue with no due process at all.
Search engines like Google can be ordered to remove associated links
from search results, and since Google routinely publishes such orders
via “Chilling Effects” ( http://j.mp/h3OFLc [Chilling Effects] ), this
has in some cases resulted in a bizarre sequence of recursive takedown
orders aimed at also removing the links to the Chilling Effects data
( http://j.mp/hSVung [TorrentFreak] ). It’s enough to even make Big
Brother’s head spin.
More broadly, countries like Spain, and now perhaps other members of
the European Union, seem hellbent to establish a 1984ish “Right to be
Forgotten” — which seems aimed at the goal of “erasing” inconvenient
references to articles or other materials from search engines and
Peter Fleischer, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, recently called this
“Foggy Thinking about the Right to Oblivion” in his personal blog, and
likened these efforts to using privacy claims as an excuse for
censorship ( http://j.mp/eQ03ud [Peter Fleischer] ).
He is correct. In fact, what we’re seeing on various fronts are
attempts to hold back technology in unreasonable and ultimately
impossible ways, much as occurred at various other times throughout
technological history (early battles over the printing press are
particularly noteworthy on this score).
In the Spanish case, the issue in play is references to a critical
article regarding a plastic surgeon who was (at one time) involved in
a dispute, since settled, with a patient. He wants search engine
listings pointing to that article to be deleted from Google, since
that article comes up highly ranked in search results for searches on
The fact, of course, is that the dispute did occur. It is real. It
is history. And attempting to retroactively delete references to it
not only will ultimately be useless — the Web with its many copies
and mirrors is far less easily controlled than the print media of
“1984” — but sets a terrible precedent for retroactive censorship —
falsification, really — of historical reality.
That such measures would even be contemplated is a symptom of a
broader range of radical privacy positions that are increasingly
alarming. Not only are we hearing calls to “edit history,” but we see
people going ballistic over photos of their home taken from public
streets, as if their presence in the community could or should be
erased from the consciousness of passers-by and the rest of society on
which they (and we all) ultimately depend.
Ironically, many of these persons seem unconcerned about the vast
deployment of real-time closed circuit (CCTV) surveillance systems
under government control, citizens attempting to record contacts with
law enforcement being charged with wiretapping, and a range of other
very real risks from the interplay between government and citizens.
This is made even more stark by the conflicting demands of some
governments — ordering massive data retention regimes for the
government’s use to track what Internet and phone users do, while
simultaneously trying to limit the sorts of data available to the
public at large.
Back to those Google search results. I do have sympathy for persons
concerned about Web pages containing painful, negative, upsetting, or
even completely false content about them, showing up highly ranked in
associated searches. I receive complaints about such situations quite
frequently, asking me for help in somehow deleting those results.
Frankly, many of these stories are far more emotionally compelling
than the case of the Spanish plastic surgeon.
But as I explain to these persons, and as I do strongly feel, the
solution to such situations cannot be attempts to splice such
materials out of history. Not only will this fail in the long run,
but the collateral damage to free speech and civil liberties would
likely be immense.
I have long maintained, as in “Search Engine Dispute Notifications:
Request For Comments” ( http://j.mp/gLuTjh [Lauren’s Blog] ), that the
best ameliorant for such situations is not less information, but
*more* information. Not censorship, but annotation.
A “right to forget” is a terrible concept — but in serious cases, we
could perhaps use something more like “an opportunity to dispute,” —
ideally offered voluntarily by search engines in specific situations,
not by some sort of government edict.
In practice, this could be as simple as a small “Result is Disputed”
link accompanying an associated search result, leading to a page where
the dispute is discussed in detail. The actual result listing itself
would not be removed, and its natural ranking would not be altered.
Most of the people who complain to me about serious situations
involving search results are less concerned that the results exist in
a highly ranked way on Google per se, but rather that no effective
mechanism to tie-in “their side of the story” with such highly ranked
results is available.
I am not suggesting that such dispute links should be common or
available on demand. I do feel that they could be very usefully made
available for particularly serious cases, as escalated through an
organized “triage” mechanism.
This would not be a trivial undertaking. But I firmly believe that it
is within the capabilities of Google and Bing at least, given the will
to make it work.
In any case, I believe such a dispute links system would cause far
less collateral damage than government-demanded link censorship, and
help to provide effective, fair balance for seriously disputed Web
pages that happen to rank very highly.
More information — not less. That’s what we should be striving for.
The “right to be forgotten” being discussed in Europe is no less a
form of censorship, of altering the historical record, than was the
task of Winston Smith in the “1984” dystopia.
And that’s the truth.
Lauren Weinstein http://www.vortex.com/lauren
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: http://www.pfir.org
– Network Neutrality Squad: http://www.nnsquad.org
– Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance: http://www.gctip.org
– PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Google Buzz: http://j.mp/laurenbuzz
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 / Skype: vortex.com
Lauren Weinstein Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility, Network Neutrality Squad, Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Privacy Forum. The best ameliorant for such situations is not less information, but *more* information. Not censorship, but annotation. A “right to forget” is a terrible concept.
Deleting History: Why Governments Demand Google Censor the Truth