Google received a lot of criticism after it began removing links last week to comply with the May European Court of Justice decision granting the right to be forgotten on the Internet. A flurry of articles debating whether Google is censoring the Internet were posted as it began link removal. As of the end of June, Google had received over 70,000 requests.
Requesting link removal can actually produce the opposite effect of being forgotten. The original case that produced the EU decision as well as new links in consideration for removal are generating a lot of press attention and new Google search results.
“At least as it looks now, there are definitely some unworkable components,” Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins told Reuters. “We’ve seen a number of situations in the past few days, where somebody in an effort to get a certain thing forgotten has brought more attention to it than ever was there before.”
The original case started when Mario Costeja Gonzales of Spain wanted Google links removed that arose from newspaper articles reporting forced sale of properties arising from a social security debt. A US Google search for Costeja Gonzales now brings up 53,700 results (Mario Costeja Gonzales 49,500) while the same search on UK Google brings up 53,800, including an entire Wikipedia page devoted to him.
A search for former Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal produces pages of new results generated within the last week whether on the US site or European Google site. O’Neal didn’t even request removal of the link and is now the subject of renewed interest in his name.
British politicians and EU officials expressed concern over the removal of the 2007 BBC blog post reporting on the CEO of Merrill Lynch. There is nothing incorrect in the article yet Google removed the link (interestingly, the link is unavailable on the BBC server as of this morning).
According to CNN, “Two senior EU officials said Google’s removal of the BBC article was a misinterpretation of the ECJ’s ruling. One, who did not want to be named, said: ‘The ruling and the European Commission have made it clear that the right to be forgotten should not be applied for journalistic work.’”
On Friday Google restored links to Guardian articles it had deleted just a day before. Google defended its actions on the Radio 4’s Today program, saying that it was a “difficult” process. As of Friday, the story about O’Neal remains forgotten.
Google denied using removal as a way to show disapproval of the EU decision. “Absolutely not,” Barron told the BBC. “We are aiming to deal with it as responsibly as possible… The European Court of Justice [ECJ] ruling was not something that we welcomed, that we wanted – but it is now the law in Europe and we are obliged to comply with that law.”
The ruling left a lot of ambiguity as to how requests would be handled and the standard for removal. The intention of the EU Court decision was to balance the public’s right to know with an individual’s right to privacy. From the beginning it was clear the ambiguity in the language would create problems.
According to the court, links to be removed must meet the following standard, “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed”. Lawfully published accurate data could, “in the course of time become incompatible with the directive.”
Newly elected European Parliament member Viviane Reding (formerly with the EU justice commissioner) said earlier this year that the court “made clear that journalistic work must not be touched; it is to be protected.”
The difficulty in interpreting a loosely stated standard and the perception that it would be censoring the internet is why Google continually fought against the case.
“…it did not want to be put in the position of internet censor extraordinaire. But that is exactly what has happened. And Google appears to be curiously allowing this to unfold. It has sent notices to the likes of the Guardian and the BBC, presumably for sake of transparency,” Wired UK reporter Liat Clark said. “However, it will have known that these journalistic institutions would leap on the facts and write about them. The stories are everywhere. We are all questioning the implementation of the right to be forgotten, the threat of censorship and, more troubling, the threat that public figures are already succeeding in using it to quash information they would rather we didn’t know. They have a new route open to achieve this, since the articles are factual and not libellous in any way.”
According to TechCrunch, “So far Google’s spin strategy has been spectacularly successful. By publishing stories about the removed links, the media is neatly turning a right to be forgotten on its head — shining the spotlight back on private individuals who may have been seeking to de-emphasize outdated or irrelevant information about them.”