When the European Union ruled last May that search giant Google had to delete embarrassing personal information from its search results, some advocates celebrated the news as a win for privacy.
But others, including the New Jersey web developer Afaq Tariq, saw the “right to be forgotten” a little differently. To Tariq, removing a link from a search engine index was akin to hiding it — censoring it, even. And despite Google’s promises to display notices next to hidden results, Tariq thought that crowdsourcing could take transparency even farther. So one week ago, he launched a Web site — hiddenfromgoogle.com — and invited visitors to log “forgotten” search results.
“This list is a way of archiving the actions of censorship on the Internet,” Tariq explained on the site’s about page. “It is up to the reader to decide whether our liberties are being upheld or violated by the recent rulings by the EU.”
Admittedly, Hidden From Google hasn’t done much archiving to date. Tariq has only uncovered 11 hidden links — including one about an archaeologist’s 2006 shoplifting conviction, several regarding the disgraced Scottish Premier League referee Dougie McDonald, and one about Carlos Silvino, a convicted rapist and participant in Portugal’s gruesome Casa Pia ring.
What’s interesting about these links, of course, is that they don’t contain information that most people would consider inadequate, irrelevant or outdated. (After all, these people were convicted of serious crimes, not merely accused of them — it’s hard to argue that concealing their conviction somehow benefits the public.) And in that regard, even Hidden from Google’s initial trickle of links serves an important transparency function, surfacing the silent, unseen manipulations that go on behind the scenes of some of the Internet’s biggest sites.
That’s not a new premise, of course — Chilling Effects, which documents material taken down over copyright complaints, has been doing this for years — but it does seem to be cropping up more frequently these days. During the 2012 elections, for instance, the Sunlight Foundation launched a service called Politwoops to log the tweets politicians delete. And just last week, web developer Ed Summers launched @congressedits, a Twitter bot that reports Wikipedia edits from House IP addresses. Versions now exist for Canada, France and Sweden, as well. As Summers explained on his blog:
Watching the followers rise, and the flood of tweets from them brought home something that I believed intellectually, but hadn’t felt quite so viscerally before. There is an incredible yearning in this country and around the world for using technology to provide more transparency about our democracies …
We desperately want to be part of a more informed citizenry, that engages with our local communities, sees the world as our stage, and the World Wide Web as our medium.
What Summers essentially describes is an impulse to watch the watchers — an idyllic and democratic concept, in his conception, but also (I suspect!) a bit of necessary, reactionary cynicism. In some respects, tools like Hidden From Google and @congressedits are little more than poor man’s battles against the overwhelming, ubiquitous might of tech giants and government surveillance and other modern forces we’re only just now understanding. They’re basically attempts to right the scales.
Will they? Can they? The modest response to Hidden From Google — 11 links thus far, from the 70,000 takedown requests Google has gotten — would suggest it’s an asymmetrical war. But it’s also a salient reminder of the Internet’s democratizing potential. Governments can dictate what they will; the web never forgets.