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It’s Not Censorship

by Rudy M. Baum
June 2, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 22

Seven or eight years ago, I received a very polite e-mail from a doctor who lived in Seattle who said he had what he realized was a difficult request. He hoped I would consider removing something from an ACS website.

My correspondent’s father was a prominent physicist in Russia—the head, in fact, of a prestigious institute in Moscow. Yet when you did a Google search on his name, the first result that appeared was a link to a sidebar in a story that had appeared in C&EN. The main story was on the sad state of Russian science in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The sidebar focused on this physicist moonlighting as an unofficial private taxicab driver to make ends meet because his official salary was $200 per month and even that was paid only sporadically. According to his son, now that things in Russian science had improved substantially, this was professionally embarrassing to him.

My initial inclination was to refuse the request. The sidebar was part of a C&EN story, after all, and it was essential to preserve the archive of such stories. Then I realized that the story in question appeared in a December 1997 issue, which was eight months before we launched C&EN Online, so I was confused about how the sidebar turned up in a Google search. Of course, I did the search myself, and there it was.

After quite a bit of digging, I discovered the story had been posted on a Publications Division website offering “Hot Articles” from ACS Publications. It was one of those early experiments in Web publishing that we were all doing at the time. The program had long since been discontinued, and the site didn’t officially exist anymore. But the story was still there, existing in cyberspace waiting to be discovered by Google’s algorithm.

I was reminded of this series of events when I read in a number of newspaper stories recently that the European Court of Justice, the Continent’s highest court, had ruled that people could request that Google, and by extension other search engines, remove links to potentially embarrassing information about themselves on the Web. The court’s ruling was based on the idea that people have a “right to be forgotten.”

From the stories on the ruling in the New York Times,Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, you’d have thought that an Internet apocalypse had occurred and that a new age of censorship had dawned. “European Court Lets Users Erase Records on Web” was the headline in the Times;“EU Orders Google to Let Users Erase Past,” thundered the Journal. The problem here is that neither headline is true, as the newspaper stories themselves revealed.

“In some ways, the court is trying to erase the last 25 years, when people learned to routinely check out online every potential suitor, partner or friend,” the Times’s David Streitfeld wrote. “Under the court’s ruling, information would still exist on websites, court documents and online archives of newspapers, but people would not necessarily know it was there.”

It’s actually not been 25 years that people have been routinely checking out other people online, it’s been more like the 16 years since Google was founded. But beyond that, the court’s ruling simply takes us back to the time when, if you wanted to find out something about someone, you had to dig for it; you had to know where to look for it. If I remember correctly, the world was not that much poorer for it. Crooked politicians were still found out. Shady business practices were revealed. The republic functioned quite well, thank you.

Many of the articles quoted sources who equated the European court’s ruling with censorship, and that’s just nonsense. Censorship would be if the offending records themselves were expunged, and that is not what the court ruled.

As to that Russian physicist: I decided to remove the sidebar from the story. It wasn’t part of C&EN’s digital archive, I reasoned, and the story still existed in the Dec. 22, 1997, print edition. Members of my staff opposed my decision, and I still have reservations whether it was the correct one.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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