The Red Screen of Death

Some of our readers may have noticed a couple of days ago that our post entitled “The BBC versus Trump” (not, for the sake of clarity, the full article of the same name by Freddie Attenborough) elicited an excited reaction from their web browser: the “red screen of death”. Google had decided that our website was doing something nefarious, and even though they couldn’t quite manage to be specific about what it was – and even though they sent me an email alert (thanks!) – neverthless when I loaded their helpful webpage and dug in to to the details they only told me that the reason was “N/A”. They suggested we were possibly running a phishing scam, or maybe running malware… they couldn’t be precise, but they made certain that our readers knew about it. Nice of them.

But besides making it very difficult for our readers to view our website (or at least, that particular page), the repercussions included the inability to forward our email newsletter to others, the inability to post links on other sites – a reader couldn’t post a link to the site under an article in the Times, for instance – and even (comically, at least to me) anti-virus alerts from McAfee. All very troubling to a webmaster, I’m sure. But I knew from the moment I got the email alert from Google that it was almost certainly bunk.

This is a screenshot of part of the alert I received from Google:

The claims being made by Google were vague, bordering on evanescent. It was “[s]ocial engineering content”, they said. A “security” issue, they said. But it only affected one page of our WordPress site? Hmmm. So I looked into it, and found nothing nefarious by way of actual security threats – nothing of the sort a computer “scientist” would recognise, at least. Nothing that might indicate that the page was (in Google’s words) “hacked or might include third-party resources such as ads that are designed to trick users into installing malicious software or giving up sensitive information”. There were some comments talking about anti vaccine-passport rallies (uh-oh!), but nothing involving “hacking” or scary “third-party resources”.

Google offered me the opportunity to request a security review, with a nice blue button that I could click in the Google Search Console. But they hadn’t counted on my resources and ingenuity. What I chose to do was… nothing. And within 24 hours, Google decided to simply whitelist (sorry, GCHQ!) that page. Suddenly, the imaginary threat was gone.

Interesting, one might think.

This is almost certainly not about any kind of technical/IT issue, at least as far as I can see. This is about what Google calls in the above screenshot “problematic content”. It’s about what we, and you (our readers) choose to say on this website. And while this “security” issue magically disappeared due (I imagine) to a later recognition by their algorithm or their humans that anti vaccine-passport rallies are not quite the same as anti-vaccine rallies, nevertheless we’re getting ever closer to the point at which Google might become software that we’re no longer able to uninstall.

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