July 4, 2014
In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.
He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
– From George Orwell’s 1984
The reason Big Brother and his band of technocrat authoritarians spend so much time and effort erasing history in the classic novel 1984, is because they are a bunch of total criminals and they know it. Their grip on power is made so much easier if the proles are kept ignorant, confused and in the dark. This strategy is not just fiction, it is the philosophy of tyrants and authoritarians throughout history.
While the internet is an amazing tool for communication and free speech, we must also be aware of how it can be abused by those in power who wish to whitewash history. For more on this epic struggle, read the post, Networks vs. Hierarchies: Which Will Win? Niall Furguson Weighs In. In it, Mr. Furguson explains that the biggest threat to networks overcoming hierarchies is if government technocrats are able to gain a hold of the technological tools we now use to communicate with each other. He fears this is already happening with the NSA’s PRISM program and the complicity of all the major tech companies in the agency’s unconstitutional spying.
So it appears Orwell’s feared “memory hole” has begun to emerge in Europe. This shouldn’t be seen as a surprise considering the region’s devastating youth unemployment rate and angst throughout society. The way censorship is gaining a foothold in the region is through something known as a “right to be forgotten” ruling issued by the European Court of Justice. This ruling states that Google must essentially delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its results when a member of the public requests it.
Of course this is incredibly vague, and who is to decide what it “no longer relevant” anyway? Seems quite subjective. This is clearly an attempt to take a tool designed to decentralize information flow (the internet) and centralize and censor it. As such, it must be resisted at all costs.
So far, we know of two major media organizations that have been informed of deleted or censored articles, the BBC and the Guardian. The BBC story is the one that has received the most attention because the content related to former ex-Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal, who received a $161.5 million golden parachute compensation package after running the Wall Street firm into the ground and playing a key role in destroying the U.S. economy. The BBC reports that:
A blog I wrote in 2007 will no longer be findable when searching on Google in Europe.
Which means that to all intents and purposes the article has been removed from the public record, given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people.
So why has Google killed this example of my journalism?
Well it has responded to someone exercising his or her new “right to be forgotten”, following a ruling in May by the European Court of Justice that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its results when a member of the public requests it.
Now in my blog, only one individual is named. He is Stan O’Neal, the former boss of the investment bank Merrill Lynch.
My column describes how O’Neal was forced out of Merrill after the investment bank suffered colossal losses on reckless investments it had made.
Is the data in it “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”?
Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record – especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory (Merrill went to the brink of collapse the following year, and was rescued by Bank of America).
To be fair to Google, it opposed the European court ruling.
Maybe I am a victim of teething problems. It is only a few days since the ruling has been implemented – and Google tells me that since then it has received a staggering 50,000 requests for articles to be removed from European searches.
I asked Google if I can appeal against the casting of my article into the oblivion of unsearchable internet data.
Google is getting back to me.
Since the original post, the author has provided an update:
So there have been some interesting developments in my encounter with the EU’s “Right to be Forgotten” rules.
It is now almost certain that the request for oblivion has come from someone who left a comment about the story.
So only Google searches including his or her name are now impossible.
Which means you can still find the article if you put in the name of Merrill’s ousted boss, “Stan O’Neal”.
In other words, what Google has done is not quite the assault on public-interest journalism that it might have seemed.
I disagree with his conclusion, and here is why. As is noted on this Yahoo post:
We don’t know whether it was O’Neal who asked that the link be removed. In fact, O’Neal’s name may be being dragged through the mud unnecessarily here. Peston believes it may be someone mentioned by readers in the comments section under his story about the ruling.
He suggests that as a “Peter Dragomer” search triggers the same disclosure that a result may have been censored, that perhaps it was not O’Neal who requested the deletion. In an amazing coincidence, the person posting as “Peter Dragomer” claims to be an ex-Merrill employee.
Of course, it’s not an amazing coincidence. In fact, going forward someone else can just post a comment below an article on a high profile person to get the article removed so that the person in the article can pretend it wasn’t his doing. In any event, someone who voluntarily leaves a comment should have zero say under this law. They went ahead and made the comment in the first place. Now you want an article article removed because of a comment you made? Beyond absurd.
Now here’s the Guardian’s take:
When you Google someone from within the EU, you no longer see what the search giant thinks is the most important and relevant information about an individual. You see the most important information the target of your search is not trying to hide.
Stark evidence of this fact, the result of a European court ruling that individuals had the right to remove material about themselves from search engine results, arrived in the Guardian’s inbox this morning, in the form of an automated notification that six Guardian articles have been scrubbed from search results.
The first six articles down the memory hole – there will likely be many more as the rich and powerful look to scrub up their online images, doubtless with the help of a new wave of “reputation management” firms – are a strange bunch.
The Guardian has no form of appeal against parts of its journalism being made all but impossible for most of Europe’s 368 million to find. The strange aspect of the ruling is all the content is still there: if you click the links in this article, you can read all the “disappeared” stories on this site. No one has suggested the stories weren’t true, fair or accurate. But still they are made hard for anyone to find.
As for Google itself, it’s clearly a reluctant participant in what effectively amounts to censorship. Whether for commercial or free speech reasons (or both), it’s informing sites when their content is blocked – perhaps in the hope that they will write about it. It’s taking requests literally: only the exact pages requested for removal vanish and only when you search for them by the specified name.
But this isn’t enough. The Guardian, like the rest of the media, regularly writes about things people have done which might not be illegal but raise serious political, moral or ethical questions – tax avoidance, for example. These should not be allowed to disappear: to do so is a huge, if indirect, challenge to press freedom. The ruling has created a stopwatch on free expression – our journalism can be found only until someone asks for it to be hidden.
Publishers can and should do more to fight back. One route may be legal action. Others may be looking for search tools and engines outside the EU. Quicker than that is a direct innovation: how about any time a news outlet gets a notification, it tweets a link to the article that’s just been disappeared. Would you follow @GdnVanished?
This last idea is actually a great one. Every time an article gets censored it should be highlighted. If we could get one Twitter account to aggregate all the deleted stories (or perhaps just the high profile ones) it could make the whole censorship campaign backfire as the stories would get even more press than they would have through regular searches. Ah…the possibilities.
Interestingly, due to all the controversy, a European Commission spokesman has come forth to criticize Google for removing the BBC article. You can’t make this stuff up. From the BBC:
Google’s decision to remove a BBC article from some of its search results was “not a good judgement”, a European Commission spokesman has said.
A link to an article by Robert Peston was taken down under the European court’s “right to be forgotten” ruling.
But Ryan Heath, spokesman for the European Commission’s vice-president, said he could not see a “reasonable public interest” for the action.
He said the ruling should not allow people to “Photoshop their lives”.
The BBC understands that Google is sifting through more than 250,000 web links people wanted removed.
Perhaps it wasn’t in “good judgment ” to issue this idiotic ruling in the first place. Just another government shit-show. As usual.
This article was posted: Friday, July 4, 2014 at 4:17 am