Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Argentina censors search engine results on public figures

The excellent OpenNet initiative at Harvard's Berkman Center has a fascinating story about Net censorship in Argentina.

"Since 2006, Internet users in Argentina have been blocked from searching for information about some of country's most notable individuals. Over 100 people have successfully secured temporary restraining orders that direct Google and Yahoo! Argentina to scrub the results of search queries. The list of censorship-seeking celebrities includes judges, public officials, models and actors, as well as the world-cup soccer star and national team head coach Diego Maradona.

Both Yahoo! and Google have implemented the court-order mandated filtering, although only Yahoo! has implemented complete blocking of all results for specific names. Both search engines have appealed the numerous restraining orders, and in a few cases, the firms have been fined for not sufficiently complying with some of the courts' censorship demands.

This is not the first time that a judge or government has tried to filter the Internet in an ill-considered way, an approach that is in the same stroke both disproportionately over-broad and ineffective. Recent examples of similar missteps include the blocking of scientist Richard Dawkins web site in Turkey and a US judge's order to shutter

The situation in Argentina is notable due to the fact that a search for many of the 100+ public figures on Yahoo! Argentina will result in zero results. That is, it is not a few particularly nasty or libelous results that have been removed, but all results for these celebrities, and anyone else unfortunate enough to share the same name, have been obscured from the Argentine web for those that rely on this search engine.

Try it yourself, and compare searches for Diego Maradona on Yahoo! Argentina (which blocks all results), as well as Yahoo! Mexico and Google Argentina (both of which do not block results).

In many cases, all of the search results for the public figures' names have been eliminated, while in others, only specific search results to pornographic, defamatory or copyright infringing websites have been removed. This is not just about tabloid celebrities; a central figure in this story is the judge María Servini de Cubría who has sought to block Internet content about herself that she finds personally offensive. Governments officials succeeding in limiting access to online information about themselves also sets a worrisome precedent.

All of the clients are represented a single lawyer, Martin Leguizamon Peña, who has claimed to have achieved a 80% success rate in obtaining restraining orders against Google and Yahoo!. Peña is also seeking compensation of 300,000 to 400,000 pesos ($90,000 to $120,000) from the search engines for each of his clients...

Even though the blacklist is easy to circumvent, it has the potential to cause significant collateral damage beyond those 100+ celebrities who have sought court orders. This is due to the simple fact that many of those individuals are unlikely to have unique names. Just as America's "no-fly list" has caused countless problems for innocent passengers who shared the name with someone else listed on the government's secret watch-list, so too does Argentina's Internet blacklist have the real potential to cause harm to others. These innocent people have now essentially vanished from a good portion of the Argentine Internet, simply because they happen to share their name with a celebrity."

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