Google has found itself at the centre of a censorship row after it removed a link to a "sickening paedophile site" after pressure from councillors in the lovely UK city of Chester and frothing lead stories in local newspaper The Chester Chronicle.
The site in question is far from a paedophile site however, as was made clear to Chester City Council by the police when it contacted them with the aim of getting it shut down. Instead, "Chester's guide to: Picking up little girls" is an article intended to be humorous. Puerile and in poor taste it may be, but illegal it isn't.
This fact has sparked an "investigation" by online anti-censorship sleuth Seth Finkelstein in which he accuses Google of caving in to mass hysteria. Unafraid of creating hysteria himself, Finkelstein moralises that "censorship is so easy to impose, and so perilous to fight". His observations have since started to be emailed around the world.
However, the only party in this whole mess that doesn't appear to be hopelessly confused is Google itself.
The debacle started on 7 February when The Chester Chronicle covered its front page with the temperate story "Don't let these perverts win". It revealed if you typed "chester guide" into Google, second in the list came a guide to picking up little girls, written by "Chester the molester".
Naturally, this is not ideal for Chester's tourist trade. So the Chronicle immediately contacted all Chester local government and tourist sites and encouraged them to change their meta-tags to push more respectable sites higher up the rankings.
Oh hang on, no it didn't, it contacted the Cheshire police who then alerted the Internet Watch Foundation, who said there was nothing illegal with the site and since it was based in the US, there was nothing it could do either.
But bolstered by the Chronicle's unswerving support, councillors started calling for the next best thing - removal from Google. And if you were in any doubt of how disgusting the site is (just a page in reality), leader of Chester City Council John Price has refused to even look at it. Just the "introductory description" was enough to get him to force Chester's MP Christine Russell to "agree to demand a change to the law to make such sickening sites illegal".
Anyway, Chester inhabitants joyfully took over the baton and emailed their blinkered hatred direct to Google. And then, victory! Last Friday, the Chronicle proudly reported Google had backed down and removed the "disturbing site". We reported it straight.
Google's PR, Debbie Frost, was quoted as saying: "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."
She then apparently praises The Chronicle by adding: "Thank you for your patience and for bringing this site to our attention."
This despicable behaviour by Google gets up Seth Finkelstein's nose and according to him "shows how censorship can be imposed from moral panic".
Except of course Google has done exactly the right thing. It was beginning to face a storm of protest concerning a site it had no control over and which had extremely limited value to anyone. It certainly wasn't going to be sued if it took it off its index.
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. No doubt, it calculates that by the time this happens, the fuss will have blown over. The Chronicle gets it victory and Google gets some peace.
But it is with some irony that a Google search on "chester guide" now lists Seth's anti-censorship page on the affair in the number two slot. From which it is not difficult to find the offending site. Should this too be wiped out?
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? Will the mighty Chronicle rise again to tackle this sickening wave of online perversion?
Or perhaps everyone will get over themselves and get on with something more constructive instead. ®
Google pulls sick site following Chester protests