The EU’s “Right to be Forgotten” Directive: Google Censors Articles from the BBC and The Guardian
In May, Marketing Digest reported that the Court of Justice of the European Union had ruled that internet search engines could be compelled to remove information about individuals from search results if it violated their privacy. Also known as the “Right to be Forgotten” directive, citizens and permanent residents of the EU could now ask search engines, like Google and Bing, to remove sensitive information from their SERPs.
Google began removing listings last week in response to this directive, and as predicted by many analysts, the censorship has generated a fair degree of controversy. Yesterday, the BBC, The Guardian, and The Daily Mail revealed that news stories about certain individuals had been removed from the search results of European versions of Google.
To clear up an initial misunderstanding, these news stories have not been removed from the publishers’ websites; instead, Google has removed links to these news stories from their search results. While individuals can request that objectionable listings be removed, these listings will only be removed if Google approves the request.
Once approved, objectionable listings will only be removed from searches containing those individuals’ names, as well as searches containing those names and other words. These censored listings will continue to show up for other searches that do not contain the targeted names.
Google Censors the BBC
Some of the censored listings are particularly controversial, not only because they challenge the freedom of the press, but also because they infringe upon the public’s right to know. Case in point: Yesterday, BBC business editor Robert Peston revealed that a 2007 blog post about American business executive Stan O’Neal had been censored.
O’Neal was ousted as head of Merrill Lynch on October 30, 2007, after the bank suffered considerable losses following a series of reckless investments. O’Neal was also among the “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis” list created by Time.
According to Peston, Google received the following notification yesterday:
Notice of removal from Google Search: we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google:
“So there is an argument that in removing the blog, Google is confirming the fears of many in the industry that the ‘right to be forgotten’ will be abused to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest,” observed Peston. “To be fair to Google, it opposed the European court ruling. But its implementation of it looks odd, perhaps clumsy.”
Peston further mused that his blog was probably the victim of “teething problems,” as Google struggles to create a workable system to handle the growing volume of search removal requests. Google has received about 50,000 requests for removals, and has hired an army of paralegals to process these requests.
What makes these listing removals particularly shady is the fact that it is hard to tell who was responsible for these removal requests. Salon published an article today that accused O’Neal of attempting to “scrub Google’s search results of any links to stories that might be critical of him.” Peston believes that the removal may have been requested by someone who’d left a comment on the blog post and now wanted privacy. Either way, Google will not reveal the identity of the individual, which has only fueled speculation.
Google Censors The Guardian
Yesterday, James Ball of The Guardian reported that Google had sent an automated notification, informing the publisher that six Guardian articles had been scrubbed from search results. Ball went on to suggest that the rich and powerful would soon begin to scrub even more articles from Google’s SERPs, most likely with the help of reputation management firms.
Three of the censored articles date from 2010, and concern the now-retired Premier League referee, Dougie McDonald. McDonald certainly has something to hide—he confessed to lying to Celtic manager Neil Lennon over the now infamous Tannadice penalty incident, and subsequently resigned.
Anyone who types the search term “Dougie McDonald Guardian” into the US version of Google will see three Guardian articles about the incident at the top of the SERP. When the same search term is typed into Google.co.uk and other EU versions of Google, the articles cannot be found.
Ball notes that Google is a reluctant participant in the “Right to be Forgotten” directive, and has taken to reporting to publishers when their content has been censored—perhaps in the hope that they will write about it. Those incriminating articles about McDonald can still be accessed online, but it has become slightly more difficult to find them.
Other news stories that have been censored on European versions of Google include The Daily Mail’s report on Tesco workers attacking their employer on social media, and the story about a Muslim man who accused Cathay Pacific of racism, also from The Daily Mail.
Google Has Been Issuing Misleading Notices to Publishers
It doesn’t help that Google’s very broad removal notice gives the impression that more people may have requested for removals than actually have. When performing a search for a non-celebrity name (like “Stanley Smith”) on Google.co.uk, a notice appears at the bottom of the SERP that implies that some results may have been censored [see Figure 1]:
Police the Internet? Not a Chance
Google’s clumsy attempt to carry out the rulings of the EU Court of Justice has been likened to China’s attempt to police the Internet and prevent its citizens from accessing certain information. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton once famously asserted that policing the Internet was like “nailing Jell-O to a wall.”
In the case of the EU’s “Right to be Forgotten” directive, that assertion appears to be painfully true. Censored search listings can easily be accessed on non-EU versions of Google. In fact, with a little detective work, searchers can compare SERPs from the EU and non-EU versions of Google to spot the listings that have been censored (and perhaps even figure out the motivations behind the censorship).
It remains to be seen if Google will eventually implement a more seamless search removal process. Unfortunately, as these examples clearly show, censorship of search results isn’t always to the benefit of the public.
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