[Following is the earlier draft of "Disappeared by Google," much longer and with more detail, before the trimming necessitated by journalistic publication and revision highly recommended by a couple of reviewers prior to publication. It contains more detail and extended consideration of points that were either eliminated or severely condensed in the final version:]
Disappeared by Google
This is a story of corporate-sanctioned, virtual, cyber-murder.
Between 1975 and 1983 between 9,000 and 30,000 people were abducted by authorities in Argentina, interrogated and tortured, and then murdered, often by being drugged and tossed from airplanes flying over the ocean or shot and buried in secret mass graves. These were the “Disappeared” of Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War”; the victims were often trade-unionists, students and left-wing activists. I will not recapitulate travesties of the Dirty War, nor do I mean to suggest that Google’s own dirty war against selected bloggers rises to the inhumanity of Argentinean military authorities’ criminal actions. Nevertheless, as you’ll see momentarily the Disappeared of Argentina’s Dirty War provide some useful analogies for those whom Google has Disappeared.
I have written a blog since November 2006. Since then, I posted a new entry almost every day. In the beginning, I wrote about photography – my own and others’ – about photographic techniques, and about other topics of interest to a small audience. Google faithfully indexed the blog. With the 2008 election approaching, however, I began to post commentary in support of the Obama campaign and deriding Republican politicians of all stripes. Then in July 2008 I discovered the first of the topics to which I’d give continuing, substantive coverage: the criminal provisions of 18 U.S.C. Sections 2257 and 2257A. We needn’t discuss its complexities here, but the statutes criminalize certain photography as a felony if the photographer fails to adhere to a number of onerous record-keeping requirements. Other comments of general political, social, legal and cultural interest followed in 2008 and the early months of 2009. One might say I found “my voice.” This change in emphasis meant that my blog would begin to pop up in Google searches of a non-photographic nature.
During those first two years, an unknown number of people apparently complained to my blogging service (“Blogger,” also known as “Blogspot,” which is owned by Google) regarding content of my blog. (I say “apparently” because Blogger/Google never told me about complaints.) Near the end of 2008, Google imposed a warning page on my blog, reading,
Some readers of this blog have contacted Google because they believe this blog’s content is objectionable. In general, Google does not review nor do we endorse the content of this or any blog.
No one could see the blog’s content without first clicking “I understand and I wish to continue,” including access to the blog from a Google search. This is important because such a warning page should be sufficient to “protect” viewers from anything considered objectionable.
I did not object at the time to imposition of the warning page; neither did I discontinue use of Blogger and move my blog to any of a number of other blogging services having no such protectionist attitudes. With hindsight, perhaps I should have.
My blog had modest readership, averaging 255 persons per day from January 2007 through February 2009. Because Google was indexing the blog during that period, an average of 24% of my readers found me through search engines, principally Google’s. Then in late February 2009 Google de-indexed the blog. Readers finding the blog via searches dropped from 31% on February 24 to 4% by March 1. It has averaged 1.09% since March 1.
“De-indexing” means that Google removes all references from its search service. Starting March 2009, if you searched on one or more words or a phrase appearing in my blog, the blog was not listed in Google search results. For example, if you were a photographer researching the Section 2257 subject mentioned above, you would not find my discussions of that subject.
Google had Disappeared my blog.
Daily average readership fell to 122 persons for the period March-December 2009, then 109 for January-May 2010. For May alone, 92 persons per day on average. In other words, after my blog was Disappeared, I lost 57% of my readership.
I said earlier that Argentina’s Dirty War provided analogies for those of us whom Google has Disappeared:
- Argentina: The Disappeared were individuals of whom those in power disapproved (to put it mildly). Those Disappeared often did not learn of their danger until it was too late; they would often Disappear without a trace. Google: Does not tell us why entities are Disappeared. (Not only blogs are affected – also companies’ and individuals’ websites.) Although it provides some “Webmaster guidelines” that list some nefarious activities that will lead to removal from Google’s search results, Google will not explain how those guidelines apply in an individual instance of de-indexing. Moreover, Google does not disclose the source of disapproval that leads to being de-indexed. It does not announce de-indexing when it occurs.
- Argentina: Disappearances were extra-judicial – i.e., abductions were conducted in secret, with no warning, and no law supported either abductions or the eventual murders. Google: Because Google is a private company, it discloses rules only insofar as it chooses to. For actions vis à vis other private entities, Google answers to no government or law. When an entity is Disappeared, Google is accountable to no one. Thus, Google’s actions are always extra-judicial.
- Argentina: Disappearances were not publicly known, except by word of mouth – this led to April 1977 demonstrations by fourteen mothers of Disappeared in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo, which grew eventually to become the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (“Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo”), a major force publicizing the atrocities. Google: I was not informed when Disappeared. There is no “community of the Disappeared,” no Madres acting on behalf of the Disappeared. A literature has developed regarding de-indexing, and a profitable consultancy services those who have been Disappeared.
- Argentina: Individually, the Disappeared became invisible to the collective memory – they were remembered only by the Madres and other friends and relatives. Google: Once an entity has been de-indexed, although the body of its work remains “alive” – i.e., Google cannot remove an entity’s website – that website becomes unknown to the rest of the Internet. As to the entity’s site, the Internet’s collective memory –Google’s search service – has amnesia.
- Argentina: The Disappeared received no due process. That is not to say no rules or processes applied to the abductees, but these were invented internally, secretly implemented by the authorities, and were not known to the abductees. Best recourse for persons fearing possibility that they might be Disappeared was to leave the country. Google: Because Google is not answerable to any external body and it operates in secret, a Disappeared receives no due process except as invented by Google, and then only within Google’s internal rule-making regime. Some recommend that bloggers who have been disappeared recreate their blogs on other services rather than seek redress through Google.
- Argentina: The Disappeared were abducted and murdered without regard to their contributions to society. In other words, it made no difference that a Disappeared might be a doctor ministering to the poor, a priest renowned for his piety, a teacher admired by hundreds of students, or a young writer who might win a Nobel Prize for Literature – all were susceptible to abduction and death. Google: If Google Disappears an entity, it not only denies to the global web whatever the entity may have contributed in the past, but its future contributions as well. De-indexing is not selective – it is capital punishment for an entire body of work.
- Argentina: The Disappeared might never learn the reason for their abduction, much less the certainty of their eventual execution. Google: When my blog was de-indexed, Google did not inform me, and I also never learned why. In fact, I did not discover the de-indexing for months after it happened. Google says it will not tell anyone who has been Disappeared why it happened; they must figure it out for themselves.
- Argentina: The Disappeared had no right and limited opportunity of appeal, except insofar as they could plead for mercy from their captors, and pleas were denied with no communication to the condemned, unless one considers sudden death to be “communication.” Google: Provides a perfunctory mechanism to appeal a de-indexing – the ultimate decision following such an appeal is reached in secret, however, with limited opportunity to present one’s case, and the appellant will often know little or nothing of Google’s basis or rules for its decision. In the end, if the entity remains Disappeared, it is effectively a cyber-execution.
Since February 2009, I have blogged approximately fifty thousand words, on many subjects. For the most part I was in blissful ignorance that my blog had been Disappeared. During that period I wrote derisively of hypocritical homophobic political or religious leaders discovered to be themselves homosexual (it’s a never-ending list). I explored societies, cultures and religions in which women are second-class citizens and wondered why the world tolerates them (multiculturalism run amok). I wrote critically (and not so critically) of movies, books, TV shows, etc. I was exercised about denial of civil liberties in Britain in the guise of preventing terrorism – and for that matter excesses instigated on the U.S. public using the same excuse. Probably most importantly, 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 a mini-essay on the ethics of street photography, concluding that photographers owed only minimal ethical duty to subjects photographed in public. (Because of these and other writings, I was named a “Power Blogger” by Carrie Leigh’s NUDE magazine.)
Because the blog had been Disappeared, however, no one interested in these subjects will ever find those segments.
Since the blog appears on Google’s own blogging service, using Google’s own tools, and contains none of the tricks and gimmicks that Google’s published rules forbid, I would normally be at a loss to explain the de-indexing. However, because I wrote on subjects of general interest, I concluded that people complained when their searches pointed to my blog, and they discovered other content which they found offensive. Google responded to their complaints by Disappearing the blog.
Some have suggested that Google takes its lead from the “objectionable content” warning page, de-indexing any blog to which it applies that page. That may be so. If anything, however, it only weakens any justification Google might offer and makes Google’s actions more egregious, more arbitrary and capricious, since the involuntary imposition of that page occurs because of ex parte complaints, as to which Google generally disavows applying its own analysis. 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. The blog need not violate Google’s own “Blogger” terms of service (in which case the blog itself would be removed), yet its content is removed from the greater searchable Internet universe.
Google’s motto is, “Do no evil.” Who appointed them guardian of the world’s mores? If they do consider themselves guardian, why don’t they act more responsibly? And how do they reconcile their motto with acting like a third-world military junta? (Lest anyone think I am prejudiced against Google, in fact I wish them well – I have been an investor in the company’s stock for years, and it has been very profitable for me.)
Let us suppose arguendo that neither Google nor Blogger has done anything illegal, nor that anything they have done contravenes their “terms of service.” How do they stand morally 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?