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Why are Telegraph stories about the ‘right to be forgotten’ disappearing from the Internet?

Google and a British newspaper are currently embroiled in a confusing cycle of link deletion and reporting on said deletions, which has led to still more deletions.

In recent days, Google's been removing links from its European search results that point to stories published on the Web site of The Telegraph. That's in deference to the right to be forgotten, a European law that requires search companies to scrub links to Web sites if members of the public submit a request. In some cases, those links to content have since been restored. But other moves to suppress search results for Telegraph stories have been upheld.

Telegraph staffer Matthew Sparkes wrote an article today pointing out some deletions, as part of an apparent bid to draw attention to the law.

Sparkes wrote Thursday that The Telegraph had received a notice from Google saying that two of its articles — both referencing the 2001 arrest of several men for the alleged possession of explosives — had been de-listed from the search engine. Separate stories from The Telegraph explained that other stories have been de-listed from European Google, too — including one story about a "'mindless hooligan' newspaper executive."

Here's where it gets weird. Clicking through to the story about the stories that got hit with the right-to-be-forgotten requests results in a 404 error. The stories have been deleted. First noticed by Danny Sullivan, nearly all of the meta-stories are unreachable now.

It's hard to make sense of what's going on here. The Telegraph did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

The right to be forgotten requires search companies like Google to stop listing links to content if a person can credibly claim the content in question is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive." It doesn't require that the content-holder or producer remove the content from the Internet altogether. And indeed, the original articles that were subject to Google's right-to-be-forgotten takedowns are all still up. It's only the reports about what got affected by the takedown actions that have disappeared. And it's not like the reports about the reports have been de-listed from Google, either — they still appear in European search results. Even if they had been slapped with right-to-be-forgotten requests, they should still be reachable by typing in the URLs directly.

To be clear, the Telegraph's stories are disappearing in two different senses of the word: Some stories simply vanish from Google, whereas others — the stories about the stories — are vanishing from the Internet altogether. (Although, not quite: The Internet Wayback Machine has a copy of the 2014 article that's unavailable on the Telegraph's own site.)

So to recap, a story that's more than a decade old vanishes from Google. Then the newspaper that wrote the story writes another story saying the first story was deleted from Google. Then, inexplicably, the newspaper deletes its own story about the story about the content that somebody decided should be scrubbed from search results. Then that repeats. Twice.

Congratulations, Internet. We have ourselves a mystery.

Update: The Telegraph tells me that the articles were "briefly unpublished while we considered the right to be forgotten issue in their specific cases." The newspaper has now republished the articles that got taken down, evidently deciding that it is worth disclosing what's been affected, after all. Here's the Telegraph's full list, which has been restored to the Interwebs.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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