'Hidden from Google' site remembers the pages Google's forced to forget

Filed Under: Data loss, Featured, Google, Privacy

Composite image of Google and Hidden from Google logosSo European Union courts have forced Google to forget certain people's irrelevant or outdated online histories.

Within days of the court order going into effect, EU citizens were mobbing Google with requests to have their pasts expunged, at the rate of 10,000 requests per day.

The backlog of requests had reached 50,000 as of a week ago, according to Chilling Effects.

But the buried pages haven't technically been killed, nor have they been erased.

Regardless of what the directive is being called, courts technically didn't grant Europeans the right to be forgotten. Rather, it gave them the right to be relatively obscured, by having eligible pages flagged so they don't show up in search results.

The data is still out there. And now, a newly launched site is archiving the forcibly de-indexed pages, in the name of opening up to the internet as a whole the discussion regarding what should or should not be "forgotten."

The site, Hidden From Google, states that its purpose is to list all links being censored by search engines due to the recent EU decision.

From the site:

This list is a way of archiving the actions of censorship on the internet. It is up to the reader to decide whether our liberties are being upheld or violated by the recent rulings by the EU.

The debate concerns the public's right to knowledge vs. censorship.

As it is, thousands of takedown requests have come from parties and individuals, including huge banking companies, a politician with a murky past, a convicted paedophile and a man who had attempted to murder his family and wanted to remove links about his crime.

Hidden From Google isn't comprehensive. It doesn't automatically archive all newly buried sites.

Rather, it relies on a community of users, journalists, and advocates who submit links and verify updates.

In fact, as of Tuesday, it was showing only a dozen Google-expunged sites, along with a note informing visitors that some links previously censored by Google in the EU are no longer being censored - hence, they've been removed from the site.

Hidden From Google was launched by Afaq Tariq, a web developer from the US state of New Jersey.

Tariq, for his part, says he isn't actually sure whether the right to be forgotten should win out against the public's right to uncensored knowledge.

He is, however, committed to bringing the debate out into the open, he told Motherboard:

Whether I agree with the concept or not, it is a perfectly legitimate way to archive the actions of this societal decision so an open discussion can take place on its impact. I built it with the notion of it empowering a fairly equipped debate.

Chilling Effects - a clearinghouse for takedown requests from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act - hasn't yet figured out if it can, or should, catalog all the sites removed in court-ordered takedown requests.

Chilling Effects staffer Emily Hong explains in a blog post how tricky it is to figure out how to weigh the demands of privacy and freedom of expression:

Given the inherent subjectivity of the content, right to be forgotten requests promise to be even more ambiguous than copyright claims. Formulaic notice services are thus even more likely to upset the balance between privacy and freedom of expression by making fraudulent requests both easier to send and harder to detect.

In a pool of 50,000+ incoming notices, a false positive rate of just 0.1 percent would amount to 50 individual cases that result in the harmful loss of speech. Magnify that by several orders of magnitude...

Media outlets are already crying foul about the takedowns, and it's easy to see why. One of the first links I clicked on Hidden From Google was about a Parisian Post-It war featuring multicoloured sticky notes competitively stuck to office windows.

It seemed innocuous enough to me. Why would anybody object?

Was it a company that didn't want to be embarrassed by the idea that its workers spend large chunks of time forming mosaics of bitmaps, such as one of SpongeBob SquarePants?

The more we hear about the right to be forgotten, the worse it sounds to me.

I want to know about politicians' murky pasts. I want to know if somebody's been convicted of child abuse.

I want to read about French cubicle workers wasting time doing something clever with office supplies.

It's a big, mucky world out there, and we should be able to see all of its warts.

Do you agree, or do you think I've lost sight of privacy rights? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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8 Responses to 'Hidden from Google' site remembers the pages Google's forced to forget

  1. Vukmate · 445 days ago

    Completely illegal.

    • Jim · 445 days ago

      WHICH is completely illegal? The "forget" feature, or the possible privacy violation?

  2. LonerVamp · 445 days ago

    I find this whole situation fascinating. There are plenty of people who want to hide truths and rewrite history. I'm sure there are plenty of people who will be trying to expunge their competitors' pages from search results, and disgruntled friends, or whomever. Or for whatever superfluous reasons like your Post-It example.

    What sucks is for all of those bad reasons, there certainly are good reasons, such as stalking or maybe having been wrongly pulled into something. Or maybe someone who did bad things but has now legitimately turned their life around?

    So, what do you do? Certainly it has to be a proctored process, but how do you make those decisions? Definitely not an enviable place to be, much like any administrator of any user-supplied content or aggregator that inadvertently disseminates something that paints someone/thing in a bad light, whether truth or not.

  3. Thomas · 445 days ago

    Lisa, I enjoy your articles because you hit on issues I want to know about.

    Have you lost sight of privacy rights? That's hard to judge from a single example, and regardless, only you can answer that question.

    I agree totally about the public having the right to read about corrupt politicians, and about criminal behavior. Serious things like that should not be expunged from the internet or anywhere else. They have nothing to do with privacy and have everything to do with shining a light on people who are a danger to society. Sometimes false accusations are made, so there should be a verification mechanism to confirm or refute such allegations. That's what we expect, but don't always receive, from a functional, free press.

    On the other hand, "French cubicle workers wasting time doing something clever with office supplies" is not even newsworthy. If stories like that get published, I'd call it 'self-proclaimed journalists wasting time investigating and writing about irrelevant non-events'. I have a hard time believing you want to follow that kind of idiocy except for a laugh. I prefer occasional visits to "The Darwin Awards" website for amusement, but to each their own.

    Bottom line, privacy is important and should be protected. Corruption, criminality and idiocy are fair game, as long as it's the truth. The common parlance: "Methinks thou dost protect too much" aptly describes the examples of takedown requests you cited as context for your article. And as history has proven time and again, it's the worst examples of human behavior that makes the headlines while the best examples are left on the cutting room floor.

  4. Barry · 445 days ago

    Where I see a big issue here is someone that has been accused of a crime (or even charged) and later exonerated. Searches may still pull up the original accusation or charge story without also bringing up the exoneration. This is a serious privacy issue. We're seeing similar issues now with people that were arrested and then released without charges and or the charges were dropped but it still shows up on their police records and causes problems with job applications or crossing the border between Canada and the US. I haven't had personal experience with this, but there have been a spate of stories in Canada recently about this happening to people.

  5. anon · 444 days ago

    At last a voice of sanity! Lisa I think I love you!!

  6. Anon · 444 days ago

    A good test for whether or not your ideas are good is how well they hold up once removed from the realm of ideological theory and put into practice, in reality. Anyone who 'opposes' right to forget could have their minds changed very easily in a couple of seconds, with a few pieces of derogatory information published about them. It's like so many other issues where the unaffected-naive maintain a position that is idealistic but ignorant of the real world hurt caused by 'personal lives as infotainment'.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.