In Europe, people are lining up in droves to have themselves forgotten by Google under the controversial "right to be forgotten." But at least one website is making sure we remember what's lost from the search engine's results.
Hidden From Google, the brainchild of a web programmer in New Jersey, archives each website that Google is required to take down from European Union search listings thanks to the recent court decision that allows people to request that certain pages be scrubbed from Google's search results if they're outdated or irrelevant. That decision has resulted in takedown requests from convicted sex offenders and huge banking companies, among thousands of others.
Hidden From Google doesn't automatically archive each website that disappears from searches—instead, it relies on news reports about specific websites that are removed. Any person can submit a link that has been removed from Google, and the site will archive it. That means that the site is far from comprehensive. It only has a couple dozen stories listed thus far. Meanwhile, Google has a backlog of some 50,000 requests. By that measure, the site isn't perfect—but it is a start. Websites such as Chilling Effects catalog takedown requests from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but haven't yet begun listing sites removed from searches because of right to be forgotten requests.
"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," Emily Hong, of Chilling Effects, wrote in a blog post. "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."
Still, that site hasn't decided yet if it will, or if it's even possible, to catalogue all sites removed from Google searches as a result of the law. Hidden From Google is trying.
So far, the site has brought new life to a Daily Mail story about a couple arrested for having sex on a crowded train, to a Der Spiegel story about Scientology, and to a BBC op-ed about Merrill Lynch's role in causing the worldwide recession.
"The concept of Hidden From Google seemed to be something that was missing from the internet," Afaq Tariq, the site's programmer, told me in an email. "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."
Tariq says he's not sure whether the right to be forgotten should exist or not, but says that determining whether or not a website should turn up in Google searches should be a decision undertaken by the internet as a whole, not just one person who wants to forget something embarrassing (or criminal). Tariq said the site would be updated and expanded today.
"I am not a privacy advocate or even passionate about the topic. And neither have I decided my personal stance on the subject of private entities censoring their product (yet)," Tariq told me. "If enough people voice their opinion and say that this site causes more harm than good, I would be the first to consider its removal."