March 11, 2011

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 else.

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 impossible.

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, 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. 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 other sites.

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.

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 his name.

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, that the best ameliorant for such situations is not less information, but more information. Not censorship, but annotation.

A "right to be forgotten" 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.


Posted by Lauren at March 11, 2011 12:27 PM | Permalink
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