‘Right to be forgotten’ gets real as Google wipes stories from search results

LONDON - FEBRUARY 03: The Google logo is reflected in the eye of a girl surfing the internet on February 3, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
(Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The “right to be forgotten” just got real.

On Wednesday, the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Guardian and other British news outlets received notice from Google that some of their content was being removed from search results on some European versions of the search engine.

The purge is the result of a recent decision by the European Court of Justice requiring the search engine to remove “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” personal information from search results upon user request, even if the information is legally available elsewhere. The court said such removal requests must be balanced against the best interest of the public. Exception: information of scientific or historic value.

The BBC got a note from Google saying a 2007 blog post written by its economics editor, Robert Peston, will be removed:

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.

Google didn’t say who requested the post be removed or why, leaving Peston to wonder whether his post about about former Merrill Lynch chief Stan O’Neal was “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” — the three reasons search results can be removed.

Peston’s 2007 blog post said O’Neal was ousted from the investment bank after it suffered major losses on reckless investments.

“Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record, especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory,” Peston wrote in an article criticizing the removal of his story.  O’Neal could have made the request to remove the blog entry — or the request could have come from someone who commented on the post, Peston noted.

“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,” Peston said.

In fact, even though stories are removed from search results, they still exist online and can be found, for example, if they are hyperlinked in other stories. “The strange aspect of the ruling is all the content is still there: if you click the links in this article, you can read all the ‘disappeared’ stories on this site,” James Ball wrote in the Guardian.

Other stories have also been yanked. Britain’s Daily Mail reported removal by Google of articles about an airline accused of racism by a Muslim job applicant, a couple caught having sex on a train and a Scottish soccer referee who lied about awarding a penalty kick in a 2010.

The Guardian also reported that articles about the Scottish referee were removed, along with a 2011 piece on French office workers making Post-it art, a 2002 piece about a solicitor facing a fraud trial and an index of an entire week of pieces by Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade.

“No one has suggested the stories weren’t true, fair or accurate. But still they are made hard for anyone to find,” Ball wrote.

Google appears to be narrowly construing removal requests, yanking only results for searches of a specific name. “You can still find a vanished Dougie McDonald page if you search ‘Scottish referee who lied’; it only disappears when you add his name to the search,” Ball wrote.

A warning now appears for some searches on European Google that results may be restricted. Also, Google itself provides a workaround.

“If you go to the Google homepage, and look in the bottom right-hand corner, you’ll see a link saying ‘Use Google.com.’ Do that – or switch to another search engine, such as DuckDuckGo, which has no EU footprint and also doesn’t track cookies – and for now, you’ll see the full unfiltered results,” Ball wrote. (Note: Reporters in the United States using unrestricted American Google can’t test this.)

Ball said there could be a case for removing, for example, a story of petty crime committed in one’s youth if it made it hard for an offender to find a job later. But “such editorial calls surely belong with publishers, not Google,” he wrote.

Further: stories that “raise serious political, moral or ethical questions – tax avoidance, for example … should not be allowed to disappear … The ruling has created a stopwatch on free expression – our journalism can be found only until someone asks for it to be hidden,” he wrote.

This is only the beginning. Google said it has received more than 50,000 requests for removal.

Related: Google CEO warns ‘right to be forgotten’ could stifle innovation and empower repressive regimes

Related: E.U. court says Internet users have ‘right to be forgotten’

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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