Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Mysterious disappearance of Nguyen Tuong Van artwork: The limits of Google and Yahoo

'I am going to send you to a better place' by Matija Milkovic Biloslav Remember the news item last Friday about the controversial installation artwork "I am going to send you to a better place" by Slovenian artist Matija Milkovic Biloslav? That political artwork about Nguyen Tuong Van? No? I don't blame you. Suddenly the news networks (except ABC) shut up about it either because of the legal threat from the directors of the Lasalle-SIA college or because the college rapidly destroyed evidence of the poltical nature of the work and then denied any political connection that would allow the story to survive. More disturbingly, it seemed to disappear off the net too! It's okay though, I eventually found it.

But, back to the start of the story... According to the threatened newspaper itself:
Slovenian art student Matija Milkovic Biloslav had displayed under falling nooses a single standing stool carrying a card with Van's execution number – C856 – a very deliberate reference to the Melbourne man, scheduled to be hanged at dawn this Friday. But after The Australian unexpectantly attended last Friday night's opening of the exhibition at the Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, the self-consorship that pervades the country of four million took hold.

Over the weekend, The Australian newspaper was threatened with legal action by Lasalle directors if it published a picture of the work and all requests for an interview with the artist were denied. The card carrying Van's execution number was hastily removed. The college, which receives government funding, said the artwork was about suicide.
News.com.au, however, did publish a photo of the artwork, as did SMH in a
related news item
. I don't suppose anyone is really surprised about this: "Singapore college stifles political debate through art" is perhaps not an earth-shattering headline and so that's why we didn't hear any more about it.

But why did all the images of the artwork and links to the news articles disappear off of Google and Yahoo, arguably the two top search engines? It was only when I switched to MSN search that I was able to find the articles again (a good one on About.com too). We know that in the past, Google
has already been complicit with the Chinese government to block questionable content containing words like "dem*cracy" and "tian*nmen square". I wonder what other agreements Google is now making with other anti-free-speech governments?

Of course I'm being overly paranoid here. I don't think Google has made an agreement with Singapore. We are probably just seeing the evidence of tardy indexing of non-US websites and the limits of the effectiveness of its page-ranking algorithm. I do think it is worth getting concerned about our reliance on US-oriented and public-company-based tools to navigate and disseminate the web. It is not only tricky to find highly-specific information about very current Australian events via the dominant three search engines, but especially difficult if it's politically sensitive to the point that governments wish to prevent its spread.

Perhaps it is time to stop assuming Google can serve all of us all the time. Search engine indexing and algorithms ought to be really tailored to the geopolitical needs of the user. A specific search engine apparently already was created to assist the needs of Chinese users to access information blocked by Google to Chinese IPs (Elgoog) but it still relied on the US-centred indexing and searching algorithm of Google. Time, I say, to prototype a not-for-profit search engine that would provide Country-X-centred indexing and searching; and one of these for any country or cultural group that would care to make it.

For example, Australian users typically want to find current information produced by Australians or people who are interested in Australia, not US-produced information. So a high priority would be to index Australian websites or content produced by Australians. The page-ranking would work better for Australian users if links from high-ranking Australian websites were worth more than high-ranking US websites. In fact, links would be accorded a score on the basis of how near or far they are geopolitically (or perhaps just geographically) from Australia.

Any thoughts? Anyone interested in picking up the baton?

Addendum: Voctir, a Singaporean blogger, has posted photos of Biloslav's artwork in it's original state.

Main reference: ABC News radio broadcast about the C856 artwork story
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Blogger zzymurgy said...

No, I'm sure there is censorship of search engines, including Google.

Here's three examples:
1) two French schoolgirls who recently jumped from their apartment building in a suicide pact kept a blog, which has disappeared from Google.
2) Christina Long, a 13-year-old American catholic cheerleader, was strangled by one of the men she met for sex after chatting with them online. She apparently kept a blog of her misadventures, which has disappeared.
3) The Washingtonienne, the infamous US Senate staffer who was fired not for sleeping with dozens of men in the building, but for blogging about it. Her blog is gone from Google, archived elsewhere.

It seems that anyone can give Google a reason to wipe a web page from their databases.

December 01, 2005 12:45 pm  
Blogger Lisa said...

Do you mean the blogs (if they were Blogger blogs) were removed or that the Google indexing of the blogs was removed?

December 01, 2005 3:41 pm  
Blogger geoff said...

lisa, thanks for daring to raise this. The scary thing is that Google is so powerful and amazing, that it's incredibly easy to simply rely on it unthinkingly - what we find is what we believe; what's not found via an enquiry to Mr Google can safely be ignored.

What an opportunity for the thought-police! Apparently tentatively at work in the google corridors, from what you suggest and the other comments above.

The price of freedom - and so much else that we aspire to - is undoubtedly eternal vigilance. Even in cyberland. Thanks for the warning!

December 02, 2005 12:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think google does block. The news site had virtually no news re Nguyen Tuong Van for several days. I wrote to them pointing this out and advising that as this was by far the biggest story in Australia that I expected to find news stories about it. I asked specifically "are you scared of the Singapore Govt"?. No answer of course but the stories did start coming back soon after that. Probably coincidence..but who knows

December 04, 2005 2:33 pm  

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