Like many other people in the online era, Mario Costeja González found himself in an uncomfortable situation: When people Googled his name the top result was a piece of potentially embarrassing information from his now-distant past. But unlike many others caught in a similar predicament, he did something about it: He went to court.
The story goes like this: In 1998 González’ home was foreclosed as a result of debt which he subsequently paid off. But over a decade later he discovered that when people Googled his name the most prominent result was a link to a 1998 article from the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia detailing the foreclosure. He asked the newspaper to remove his name from the article, but they refused to do so on the grounds that the announcement of the foreclosure had been mandated by the Spanish Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. So González took his complaint to the Spanish Data Protection Agency, which rejected his complaint against the newspaper but upheld his complaint against Google, calling on the search engine to remove the link to the article from its results. Google countersued in the National High Court of Spain. In the end, the court ruled that search engines are “in certain circumstances obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name.”
The case contributed an important legal precedent to the so-called “Right to be Forgotten,” the idea that people should be free to live their lives without worry that they will be forever stigmatized by an event in the past that is no longer relevant. The great irony in González’ case, of course, is that now when people Google his name now, they’re greeted with tens of thousands of search results about his case, discussing in great detail the very foreclosure that he had worked to expunge from his Google trail. Such is life in the age of the internet, a medium which has introduced us to “The Streisand Effect.”
But as distressing as it must be to attempt to separate oneself from one’s digitally preserved past, it has to be noted that the entire concept of the “Right to be Forgotten” comes with a corollary that is even more horrific: In order for the search engines and databases to grant your “Right to be Forgotten,” they must have the ability to memory-hole you.
The memory hole, as I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded, is where Winston Smith and the other members of The Party deposited information that was considered dangerous by censorious Big Brother in the world of George Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Politically inconvenient documents, government records that contradict the newest Party-approved version of history, old newspaper records that contradict the pronouncements of Big Brother, even scraps of waste paper, were all “memory-holed” by conscientious Party members at their earliest convenience. The “memory hole” in Winston’s office was a “large oblong slit protected by a wire grating” into which problematic papers were inserted to be “whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”
Of course, in the real-world version of Nineteen Eighty-Four that we’re living through today, we do not need a complex series of pneumatic tubes leading to a central furnace in order for documents to be erased and all traces of the past destroyed. Today the way to memory-hole a person, place or event that poses a problem to The Party is simply to require that a few Big Tech companies climb in bed with Big Brother. Once in such a cozy relationship, Big Tech feels duty-bound to oblige The Party’s any and every request. And luckily for Big Brother, it was The Party that seeded and funded Silicon Valley, which it still controls, so there’s no question that Google and its cohorts will cooperate.
Surely this is a different version of “censorship” than Orwell or any of his contemporaries could have imagined. And it is probably more insidious than their fictional accounts of government suppression. When a major search engine delists your site, or even just adjusts its algorithm so your site appears lower in the search results, it isn’t that your information is destroyed. The data doesn’t disappear. It’s not incinerated, as it was in Winston’s office. But for almost everyone who uses the internet, it might as well be gone; they’ll never see it in their normal, day-to-day, Google-searching, Facebook-posting, Tweet-reading, YouTube-watching routine.
Think this description of modern-day memory-holing is an overblown, paranoid conspiracy fantasy? You’re wrong. It’s already happened numerous times. The most incredible story of all is what happened when Amazon discovered that a user had started selling an electronic version of Nineteen Eighty-Four in Amazon’s Kindle store without owning the rights to the book. Upon learning of the scofflaw, Amazon simply deleted the book from the Kindle of every user who had purchased it and refunded their money. That’s right, with the flip of a switch, Amazon memory-holed Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even Orwell couldn’t have dreamed up that delicious doozy.
I’ve discussed this type of censorship before on The Corbett Report, most recently in my video on 21st century censorship and perhaps most intriguingly in my podcast analyzing Borges’ masterful short story, “The Library of Babel.” But wouldn’t you know it, the very day that I created my “Censorship in the 21st Century” video detailing how Google and YouTube are starting to memory hole alternative media channels and sites that counter the establishment propaganda, YouTube announced some new steps it’s taking “to fight terrorism online.”
Sure, if you think YouTube’s anti-terrorism tools are only ever going to be used on some crazed suicide bomber to prevent his manifesto from going viral, then these four steps may sound reasonable. Specifically, they are:
- “increasing our use of technology to help identify extremist and terrorism-related videos”
- increasing “the number of independent experts in YouTube’s Trusted Flagger programme.”
- “taking a tougher stance on videos that do not clearly violate our policies,” meaning “will appear behind an interstitial warning and they will not be monetised, recommended or eligible for comments or user endorsements.”
- increasing its role in “counter-radicalisation efforts,” including redirecting would-be terrorist recruits to “anti-terrorist videos that can change their minds about joining.”
But one would have to be an imbecile or a child not to understand that any and all “problematic” political content will eventually fall under this category of “extremist” material. We have already seen how Google’s demonetization efforts have impacted alternative news sources like AntiWar.com and We Are Change, and even producers of bland, non-political entertainment are increasingly calling out the bizarre, nonsensical way their videos are being demonetized, seemingly at random. The point of YouTube’s latest announcement, though, is that demonetization is just the beginning. Soon legions of Party members are going to be scouring the web looking for content to flag, demonetize, render unsharable, and shut down comments on. And on top of that, they’ll attempt to redirect would-be viewers of these “thoughtcrime” videos to Party-approved content.
Do we really have to stretch our imagination to envision how this censorship will soon be applied to videos, articles and social media posts on 9/11 truth, anti-war topics, exposés of government wrongdoing, etc.?
Well, in case you needed it spelled out any more clearly, it should be stressed that YouTube chose to originally make this announcement not via its own blog, but on the editorial pages of the Financial Times. Yes, that Financial Times. Let there be no doubt that The Party has nothing to fear from GooTube or its social media confreres.
But hey, Google has finally announced its intention to scrub private medical records from search results. So I guess we can all breathe easy knowing that our data, like Allstate’s customers, is in good hands, right?
Wrong. The real solution here, as always, is to keep everything in our own hands. Unless and until the internet is “shut down” (which, barring nuclear annihilation of the planet, is not going to happen, at least not forever), it is essentially impossible for The Party to actually scrub alternative news and information from the web. They can and will (and are) scrubbing the links to this information from their controlled search engines and social media platforms, but who says we have to use them to access alt news and views?
As with virtually every other thing in life, we are voting every single day with every single decision we make and action we take. We are voting when we watch videos on YouTube instead of a peer-to-peer alternative like BitChute. We are voting when we post to Facebook instead of a blockchain alternative like Steemit. We are voting when we search on Google instead of a privacy-protecting search engine like DuckDuckGo or StartPage.
I’m as guilty as anyone else of holding on to bad habits. No one is perfect, and we can’t change all of our practices overnight. But unless and until we begin the process of disentangling ourselves from the bought-and-controlled, Party-approved, Big Tech-dominated web, we are setting ourselves up to be disappeared.
Forget the “Right to be Forgotten.” How about a “Right to be Remembered?”