Google reverses decision to delete British newspaper links
Jul 4, 2014
Google Inc on Thursday reversed its decision to remove several links to stories in Britain's Guardian newspaper, underscoring the difficulty the search engine is having implementing Europe's "right to be forgotten" ruling.
The Guardian protested the removal of its stories describing how a soccer referee lied about reversing a penalty decision. It was unclear who asked Google to remove the stories.
Separately, Google has not restored links to a BBC article that described how former Merrill Lynch Chief Executive Officer E. Stanley O'Neal was ousted after the investment bank racked up billions of dollars in losses.
The incidents underscore the uncertainty around how Google intends to adhere to a May European court ruling that gave its citizens the "right to be forgotten:" to request the scrubbing of links to articles that pop up under a name search.
Privacy advocates say the backlash around press censorship highlight the potential dangers of the ruling and its unwieldiness in practice. That in turn may benefit Google by stirring debate about the soundness of the ruling, which the Internet search leader criticized the ruling from the outset.
Google, which has received more than 70,000 requests, began acting upon them in past days. And it notified the BBC and the Guardian, which in turn publicized the moves.
The incidents suggest that requesting removal of a link may actually bring the issue back into the public spotlight, rather than obscure it. That possibility may give people pause before submitting a "right to be forgotten" request.
"At least as it looks now, there are definitely some unworkable components," said Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins. "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."
"It does make you think that maybe if you're actually trying to make an episode of your history be forgotten, this channel maybe isn’t the best way."
Google's objective is to protect the reliability and effectiveness of its search franchise. It remains uncertain how it adjudicates requests, or how they intend to carry them out going forward.
"Their current approach appears to be an overly broad interpretation," a spokeswoman for the Guardian said. "If the purpose of the judgment is not to enable censorship of publishers by the back door, then we'd encourage Google to be transparent about the criteria it is using to make these decisions, and how publishers can challenge them."
Google, which controls more than 90 percent of European online searches, said it was a learning process.
“This is a new and evolving process for us. We’ll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling,” the company said in a statement.
Notifying media outlets about scrubbed links has the effect of enhancing transparency, privacy advocates say. It might also prompt European courts to re-examine aspects of the ruling, including how it affects media outlets' coverage.
"It’s terra incognito for everyone," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "If sites that receive the notices choose to publicize them in ways that end up boomeranging against the people requesting, that might cause the courts to examine what those sites are doing."
(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic in San Francisco and Aurindom Mukherjee in Bangalore; Editing by Kirti Pandey and Lisa Shumaker)
Last month, the right to be forgotten was enshrined in European law, thanks to a ruling by the European Court of Justice. Except it wasn't a right, you weren't forgotten, and it hasn't really been enshrined anywhere. Confused? You're not the only one.
In May, the ECJ ruled on the case of a Spanish national who had, over a decade ago, been involved in an auction of property to settle social security debts. When people Googled his name, newspaper stories about the auction appeared prominently in search results. The man thought that the information about him was outdated, and the court found in his favour, ruling that Google must no longer return links to those newspaper stories when his name is searched for. The newspaper articles remain online, and can be found through Google when other search terms are used.
The mechanism is not an outrageous one, and it has precedents in the offline world. When applying for a job, for example, individuals are often asked about any criminal convictions. They are legally bound to tell their potential employer about them for a certain amount of time, but for many types of conviction that duty will eventually expire and the individual no longer has to disclose it.
Nonetheless, the result of the ruling involving what one Spanish man did in the 1990s has potentially far-reaching consequences for internet use in Europe.
In some quarters, the ruling has been described as giving every European the right to be forgotten, in others, as bringing in a new wave of press censorship. In reality, it does neither.
The ruling allows Europeans to request that data controllers, like Google, remove links to outdated or irrelevant information when searches are performed for their names. In the event the request is found to be justified, links will be removed from results returned for searches on that person's name, but the original source material will remain online and can be found through other queries. Data controllers still have the right to refuse requests when they feel the links in question are still pertinent for searches on an individual's name.
However, since Google opened a web form for people to request search result removal, tens of thousands of people have asked the search firm to do just that.
The first removalsThis week, the first such removals began to come to light. Large news organisations like the BBC and The Guardian, along with more smaller B2B outlets, all reported Google had contacted them to let them know they were subject to removals, while Google users began to see messages that certain search results "may have been removed under European data protection legislation".
A handful of recent 'right to be forgotten' removals were highlighted by The Guardian on Thursday. According to the paper, Google had alerted it that six articles would no longer be returned in search results for individuals' names. The names were not disclosed, although three articles referred to a Scottish referree, while another was a sweet story about French office workers making art from Post-It notes on their workplace windows.
Yet both cases illustrate the flaws in the system. Is the information in the story about the referree no longer relevant after three years? Is a system ostensibly meant to protect people's privacy being wasted on individuals who once happily told journalists about their creative ways of wasting office stationery?
It's a similar story over at the BBC. The BBC reports one of its articles involving the former head of Merrill Lynch Stan O'Neal no longer appeared in search results for a certain name. That name isn't, as you might have expected, Stan O'Neal. Instead, it's thought that the request is linked to a name in the comments section.
Was it right to do so?
The wider question is perhaps, when does that information become outdated in relation to its subject...