Abstract: This report examines a newspaper-led campaign to have a site removed from both its host and the Google search index. The uproar turned out to originate from a single page of text of "sick humor".
According to an article in the UK newspaper Chester Chronicle headlined "Sick website taken down" (Feb 21 2003) :
"People power and The Chronicle have won the fight to get a sickening paedophile site - in the name of Chester - removed from the web."
Almost everything in this article is wrong. And worse, it shows how censorship can be imposed from moral panic. The targeted site is not a paedophile site. But all the hysteria generated, ranging from a removal in the Google search index, to involvement of UK Members of Parliament, and more, has been caused by one text page of "sick humor"!
Councillors and readers were disgusted earlier this month when we told how a disturbing site could be accessed after innocently typing 'Chester Guide' into the popular search engine run by Google.
This week, the US firm agreed to remove the site, entitled 'Chester's guide to picking up little girls', after receiving complaints from our readers.
The move also comes after Cheshire Constabulary's paedophile unit alerted the Internet Watch Foundation. ...
However, they urged objectors to bombard Google and the Internet service provider marhost.com with complaints.
This provides enough information to find the targeted site. There has been nothing removed from the web itself. But a page has been removed from the search engine Google's index of the web.
Simply do an AltaVista search for the terms marhost.com Chester :
and that immediately returns the devil itself:
Chester's guide to: picking up little girls
Now, except for the dangers of anything involving the topic, the information in the press can be investigated for oneself (first investigations of this type should always be done with text browsers such as lynx , or with in-line images off, to avoid ever downloading an illegal image).
Shock ... horror ...
That URL is one page of "sick humor" in someone's collection of humor and links!
The Chester Chronicle article talks of "... the site's apparently American author, who goes under the warped name of 'Chester the Molester'". This is a confusion akin to accusing someone who has collected, among other items, a Dave Barry humor column which particularly amused them, of actually being Dave Barry (a concept perhaps worthy of one of his articles).
Go to http://torkyarkisto.marhost.com/
The site is in Finnish, so it's hard to read. But some links have titles which are in English, and those make it clear that this is someone's collection of bad-taste, bizarre, tasteless items.
It's all very low humor. But all of a sort which makes the rounds of the Internet every day, and even has a genre of books, such as e.g. "Truly Tasteless Jokes" (amazon.com features an excerpt page headed "Dead Baby" )
Contrast these statements, again from the above article:
Google's international public relations manager, Debbie Frost, said ...:
'When an illegal site is discovered, search engines like Google will remove such sites from their indices in order to abide by the law.
'After our investigation, we have determined that the site in question is illegal and therefore it will be removed from our index.'
... John Price, leader of Chester City Council, was furious when we informed him of the site's existence.
This week, he said: 'It's great news the site has been removed. Good riddance to bad rubbish. However, we must now be vigilant and make sure it does not come back.'
Chester MP Christine Russell was also outraged and immediately agreed to demand a change in the law to make such sickening sites illegal.
How is low-brow humor, even in atrocious taste, illegal? Who investigated it? Exactly what does the Member of Parliament plan to make illegal?
The fact that such a campaign can pressure a search engine into removing material is extremely worrisome. See the paper Localized Google search result exclusions by Benjamin Edelman and Jonathan Zittrain for examples of similar removal from Google's index, done in certain countries from apparent goverment request. But this case is global, and appears to arise from nothing more than mass hysteria.
Censorship is so easy to impose, and so perilous to fight.
Version 1.5 Feb 28 2003
Chester Chronicle - "Don't let these perverts win"
(Feb 7 2003)
Chester Chronicle - "Google refuses to remove filth from site" (Feb 14 2003)
Chester Chronicle - "Sick website taken down" (Feb 21 2003)
The Register - "Google pulls sick site, following Chester protests"
(Feb 24 2003)
The Register - "Google in paedo censorship debacle (Feb 28 2003)
This last article has some strange comments:
It gets better though. Seth explains that the site can be found easily enough through AltaVista. He fudges a search with the word "chester" and the name of the site's parent domain. But - oh no - no search results are found!
Will Seth now do a piece on the censorship of his censorship story? ...
I don't understand what is meant by "fudges a search". And results are found in AltaVista, that was the point. Perhaps the writer is confused between a general AltaVista search versus an AltaVista search for UK-only sites , where no results are found - not because of censorship, but because the relevant site is not in the UK. That does seem to be the confusion, given that the writer goes on to talk of the censorship of my story (which, happily, hasn't occurred - yet?)
There's also a technical passage which is extremely inaccurate:
You will note as well that Google has not promised to blacklist the site. That means that next time its robot goes past the site, it will be added to Google's index again.
While I can't blame the writer for not immediately knowing the details of how Google manages its index, I wish they had done the courtesy of checking this before writing so bluffly. They're completely and utterly wrong in the above. Google does in fact use a blacklist, that's how the "removal" process can work. Give me some time to write this up, I wasn't expecting such harsh criticism to be dumped on me without warning.
Update: Here's a quick attempt at an explanation. When Google "removes" material, often it's still in the Google index itself, but there's a post-processing step which removes it from any results shown to the user. But sometimes the fact that the "removed" material is still in the index can be inferred.
Currently, Google search for the word "lesbian" on the site torkyarkisto.marhost.com returns a page titled "The Kurt Cobain Quiz", with a count of
Results 1 - 1 of about 2
The "about" qualifier there represents many factors, but sometimes encompasses blacklisted pages. This can be seen here by comparing to an AltaVista search for the word "lesbian" on the site torkyarkisto.marhost.com
There are two pages visible in that case, the "Quiz" page, and the "Chester" page which caused all the trouble in the first place.
Since we know the "Chester" page was once in the Google index, it must be the other page referred to in "about 2". QED.
Again, I wouldn't assume any reporter would be familiar with this aspect of Google. But it's hardly reasonable to berate me based on imaginative parsing of a PR statement.
Now, having corrected all that, allow me step back from the technical issues and address the social issues. Shouldn't it bother a journalist when a mob can have material blacklisted, generating much uncritical talk of it being illegal? Even a gross page of "extremely limited value to anyone"? (a definition which could be applied widely ...). Examining that process, with its disturbing implications, seems to me far more constructive than killing the messenger.
Of special note:
Vigilantes mistake pediatrician for pedophile and attack home (Aug 31 2000)
LONDON (AP) ---- Vigilantes vandalized the home of a prominent children's doctor in Wales, apparently after confusing her title of pediatrician with "pedophile," police said Wednesday.
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