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Why we need an underground Google

Mike Elgan | July 15, 2014
Governments are forcing search engines to show wrong results. It's time for search engines to go rogue so they can be right.

The particulars of the case are irrelevant and the data involved unimportant. The precedent that a government in one country could censor information in other countries has bad implications if allowed to stand. Imagine if China were allowed to censor information about the Dalai Lama within the US, or if Pakistan were allowed to censor images offensive to Muslims in Denmark.

Even more recently, the European Court of Justice brought into existence Europe's "right to be forgotten" ruling. In a nutshell, Europe wanted to protect citizens from the fact that the Internet never forgets.

The particular case heard by the court involved a Spanish man who was in the press for serious debt problems, but who later climbed out of debt. Rather than ruling that the actual information about his money problems be removed or censored, the court invoked the search engine loophole for censorship and ordered Google, Bing and other search engines to remove his name as a search query that returned the outdated information about his finances.

Worse, the ruling required search engines to offer a process by which any European could request similar treatment, and ordered Google, Microsoft and other search engine companies to judge whether those requests were valid and to take action on the valid ones.

At last count, Google had received some 70,000 requests for changes to search results under the ruling in the past month. Microsoft only this week launched its process for censoring results.

Obviously, there's an argument to be had over the right to be forgotten vs the right to remember (i.e. freedom of speech). There's the issue of a slippery slope to more draconian forms of censorship. And yet another problem is the fairness issue -- search engines might be pressured by powerful media organizations (as has already happened) to uncensor results, while less powerful ones won't be able to. We'll leave those issues for other articles.

This column is focused on the cumulative effect of all these changes to the European version of search engines — that search engines there will become radically inaccurate. Google users will have to assume that any search for any name might return censored results. We can't know. (Google now puts a warning to that effect on every search result involving a name, regardless of whether any removal has taken place.)

These examples show the potential for free-thinking democracies to force inaccuracy on search engine results.

It goes without saying that authoritarian regimes are way ahead in search engine censorship. Searching for any number of sensitive search terms on any search engine legally allowed to operate in China turns up a highly skewed set of results, which are presented as if they represent what's actually on the Internet.


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