The "right to be forgotten," a rule handed down last month by the EU, is supposed to allow individuals to get "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant" results removed from Google Search. It was put in place after a Spanish citizen complained that searches for his name brought up a 1998 announcement that his house was being sold to cover social security debts. But now, The Guardian, the BBC, and others are reporting that it's being used to cover up embarrassing news stories. Yesterday, The Guardian's James Ball said Google notified him that six articles from the site were being purged from European versions of the search engine. Three of them relate to Dougie McDonald, a former Scottish soccer referee who resigned in 2010 after allegedly lying about a penalty kick.
Three articles were about disgraced former referee Dougie McDonald
Right now, searching for McDonald's name on Google.com brings up two Guardian links among other stories about the incident, but a search on Google.co.uk does not; instead, there's a notice that "some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe." Another article is about a 2002 political candidate's fraud charges, one is a page of articles from Guardian writer Roy Greenslade, and a third is about an informal Post-it note art competition. The BBC, meanwhile, was notified that an article entitled "Merrill's mess," about departed Merrill Lynch Stan O'Neal, was being removed. Author Robert Peston originally reported that the page remained available under a search for "Stan O'Neal," suggesting that a commenter had asked for their note to be removed instead. But searching his name on Google's UK engine now returns a notice instead of the article (news reports about the "right to be forgotten" have also skewed them heavily by mentioning the name.)
Removing an embarrassing notice about a house sale is arguably a minor case, but these reports are major news stories, and they're recent incidents that are harder to justify as outdated. "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," says Peston.
Google could easily have argued that the results were still relevant
Peston suggests that this might be the result of "teething problems" as Google tries to process the over 50,000 requests it's apparently received so far. But others are speculating that this is Google's way of showing just how bad the ruling could actually be. Sky, which has had articles removed as well, says that these requests clearly are neither outdated nor irrelevant, and that it's unlikely leaving them up would violate the rule. The text of the ruling, in fact, provides an exception in cases where there are "particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public in having access to the information."
"This is not the fault of the ECJ [European Court of Justice] ruling, but of its application by the Mountain View company," says technology correspondent Tom Cheshire. "By allowing legitimate stories to be removed, is Google deliberately trying to make the law look an ass?" Ball suggests something similar in Google's expansive interpretation of the rule, noting that "it's informing sites when their content is blocked — perhaps in the hope that they will write about it." Google was vague about its plans. "This is a new and evolving process for us," it told The Verge in a statement. "We'll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling."
Google has vehemently protested the rule, and this interpretation may not be far off the mark. The company, however, has also been criticized for years for its YouTube copyright takedown system, whose automatic "fingerprinting" of tracks has led to obvious false positives and dubious takedowns — although Google has also been accused of enforcing takedown requests to put rightsholders in a negative light. It's possible that both issues are in play: Google is trying to make the law look bad, but mass deletion requests rarely end well in any case.