This story is over 5 years old.


The Kindness of Letting the Internet Forget

By practicing a sort of reverse search-engine optimization, we can participate in a better, nicer, more ethical internet​.
Image: Adam Mignanelli

In December 2015, I interviewed an anti-revenge-porn activist who went to war against Hunter Moore, the "king of revenge porn." Moore had hosted nude photos of her daughter, K, on his site. He hacked the photos from K's email account, and their release caused her pain and humiliation. "I will carry the trauma of this experience with me for the rest of my life," K said in court, during Moore's sentencing. For his part, Moore—who once called himself a "professional life-ruiner"—was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.


When I wrote about the case, I decided not to use K's name, only her first initial. Her mother is well known and the media has written about her a lot, so because of that attention, K's name has also appeared many times in the press.

At this point, K is very publicly associated with Moore's case. If you're curious to see her full name, her age, her headshot, her IMDb page, just get on Google. She aspires to be an actress, and the search results tied to Moore are not the ones she wants for the rest of her life. I won't contribute to the problem. It's why I redacted her name in my original article, and why I'm continuing that practice here. K deserves to be forgotten.

By practicing a sort of reverse search-engine optimization, we can participate in a better, nicer, more ethical internet.

In the early 1990s, internet luminary John Gilmore famously said, "The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." In an age where social networks reign and have a say over what can or cannot be said online, this rule is no longer an absolute, but it rings true in many instances. Remove one torrent of the latest Game of Thrones episode, and another ten will spring up in its place. The internet does not like to forget.

In the European Union, this has led to the "right to be forgotten"—a legal right that people can exercise against search engines, forcing them to remove outdated or inaccurate information. It sprang from a case in Spain in which an old, irrelevant news story about an attorney's financial embarrassments lingered in his Google search results, years after his circumstances had changed. A court ultimately forced Google to delist the news story from its search results. In 2015, Google reported receiving more than 400,000 right-to-be-forgotten requests. The company granted about 40 percent of them.


The worst-case scenario, of course, is that someone like Moore can potentially use the "right to be forgotten" to erase his misdeeds from history. And in the UK, it has been abused to censor embarrassing stories about public figures. The public has a right to know and to remember when people commit serious wrongs. But the internet doesn't just remember scandal, corruption, and crime—it also remembers addresses, phone numbers, financial information, embarrassing photographs, and juvenile drama. Most of us have photos from freshman year of college we'd rather never see again, but they persist on Facebook in perpetuity. That's nothing compared to the Google search problems faced by people like K, who, in her quest to have her nude photos removed from the internet, may have linked her name with the term "revenge porn" forever.

The world wide web is a magnificent library of knowledge, linked together by machine-readable text that can be crawled by search engines. Through sites like Google, you can penetrate an unimaginably dense world of words; websites, blogs, and articles that would otherwise remain obscure can easily be found.

In most cases, this is a good thing. We have never had this much knowledge and information available to us at once. It also means that an argument, which in the real world would have dissipated in a flash, can last forever. A single blog post can dog someone's reputation for years.

To be fair, sometimes this is justified—for example, no matter how much money University of California, Davis, spends to remove online mentions of the incident, we shouldn't forget that campus police pepper-sprayed student protesters in the face in 2011.

Still, there are many private people who simply don't have a lot of search-engine hits for their name, and even a fly-by negative mention will float to the top, just because there isn't much else. I'm not interested in being part of someone's search-engine hell, and I imagine most decent people aren't either.

Let's set aside the legal "right to be forgotten" and think instead about the baseline of decency we want for ourselves—the kindness of forgetting. By practicing a sort of reverse search-engine optimization—refusing to supply the machine-readable text that makes search engines tick—we can participate in a better, nicer, more ethical internet.

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.