Disappeared by Google

After discontinuing my Blogger blog on June 14, 2010, I concentrated on many things, some of which are mentioned in my first return-to-blogging post here. One of them was first writing, then editing, what I conceived as an Op-Ed piece with my analysis of the Google de-indexing of my blog. I finished the final edit on July 12 and submitted it to The New York Times the next morning.  It was not accepted there (although coincidentally that newspaper wrote an editorial on July 14 — “The Google Algorithm” — paralleling my subject), so I proceeded through a number of alternate possibilities.  The alternates are now exhausted, which I self-imposed as a precondition for resuming the blog.  Here is the version as submitted:

Disappeared by Google

The designation “The Disappeared” stems from Argentina’s “Dirty War,” during which authorities abducted and murdered thousands of Argentinean citizens.  The term has new meaning in our Internet age.  I am one of Google’s Disappeared.

I have written a daily blog since November 2006.  Over the course of its first two years, I wrote postings of increasing political, social, legal and cultural interest.  Consequently, my blog appeared in Google search results.

Some people apparently complained about my blog’s content to my host, Google’s “Blogger” service.  (I say “apparently” because Blogger/Google never told me about complaints.)  Late in 2008, Google imposed a warning page on my blog which read “Some readers of this blog have contacted Google because they believe this blog’s content is objectionable.”  Readers had to click “I understand and I wish to continue” to read the contents.  I did not object to the warning page at the time, although I thought it puritanical.  [Note:  After writing and submitting, I discovered that the warning page was actually imposed later, in fact simultaneously with the apparent date when the blog was de-indexed.  If anything, this makes Google's de-indexing decision even more unforgivable.]

Until February 2009 my blog had modest readership, and an average of 24% of my readers found me through Google.  Then in late February 2009 Google de-indexed the blog.  “De-indexed” means that Google removed all references to the blog from its search service.

Search-based readership dropped to virtually nil.  Google had Disappeared my blog.  Instead of growing over time as one would expect, daily average readership fell by 57%.

Since being Disappeared, I have blogged approximately fifty thousand words, on many subjects.  During that period, using my legal training, I analyzed police and other authorities’ “War on Photography”:  stories of intimidation and harassment of photographers, including destruction or confiscation of their property.  I identified police violations of photographers’ civil rights and suggested “best practices” for photographers confronting such situations.  I wrote about laws imposing on photographers onerous and intrusive record-keeping and notice requirements.  I wrote of hypocritical homophobic political or religious leaders discovered to be themselves homosexual; of societies, cultures and religions in which women are second-class citizens; of denial of civil liberties in the U.S. and Britain in the guise of preventing terrorism; a mini-essay on the ethics of street photography; and of movies, books, TV shows, etc.  For these and other topics, I was named one of four worldwide “Power Bloggers” by Carrie Leigh’s NUDE magazine.

Because the blog had been Disappeared, however, no one interested in these subjects will ever find those segments.

This has happened to others, perhaps many others; no one outside of Google knows how many.  It is Google’s own little Dirty War.

1. Google neither explains individual Disappearances nor discloses the source of objections that lead to de-indexing.  Google does not announce a de-indexing.

2. Disappearances are extra-judicial and victims are afforded no due process – i.e., de-indexings are conducted in secret, with no warning, and Google uses no civil or criminal proceeding to eradicate searchability.

3. The public does not know of Disappearances, except by word of mouth.

4. The Disappeared are rendered invisible to the collective memory – once a website is de-indexed the Internet’s collective memory – Google’s search service – has amnesia.

5. When Google Disappears a website, it does so without regard to the site’s contributions; it denies to the global web past, present and future contributions.  De-indexing is cyber-execution for an entire body of work.

6. Google provides a perfunctory mechanism for appeal, but the final decision is reached in secret.  In the end, the entity may remain Disappeared, with no hope of resurrection.

Some have suggested that an “objectionable content” warning page, like the one that prefaces my blog, leads to de-indexing.  That may be so.  If so, however, it makes Google’s actions more egregious, more arbitrary and capricious, since that page results from ex parte complaints, as to which Google disavows applying its own judgment.  Google states, “In general, Google does not review nor do we endorse the content of this or any blog.”  In other words, if enough people complain about what appears on a blog, Google will Disappear that blog.

Google’s motto is, “Do no evil.”  That injunction appears a little lame now.  Let us suppose arguendo that neither Google nor Blogger has done anything illegal, nor that anything done contravenes their “terms of service.”  Google’s moral standing is diminished when charged that they have Disappeared – they have de-indexed – an entire body of work based upon the secret complaints of a relative handful of persons.

(Epilogue:  Readers will have noted I’ve nowhere mentioned the name or URL of my blog – on purpose:  I want Google to change its ways, not promote my writing.  Finally, although I use Argentina’s Dirty War as my touchstone to analyze Google’s actions, I by no means equate the inconveniences Google has caused our websites to the Dirty War’s unspeakable human tragedies.)

Stephen Haynes is a photographer and retired attorney living in Minneapolis, MN.

This submitted, edited version is shorter by better than half from the initial edited version (the edit into a shorter version was necessitated by The NY Times‘s strong recommendation that submitted Op-Ed pieces be approximately 750 words.  I was able to get the version down to slightly more than 800 words).  You may read the original version here.

Other articles regarding Google’s censorship:

  • The NY Times, “Google’s Gatekeepers,” by Jeffrey Rosen, law professor at George Washington University (2008)

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