How The EU Censors Google & Search Engines Just Like China

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When it comes to censorship, the European Union generally isn’t one of the political entities that immediately comes to mind. But it should, especially since its new Right To Be Forgotten mandate has the political union acting in the same manner as that poster child of censorship, China.

Sound crazy, that the EU could possibly be imposing censorship on search engines in the same way that China is notorious for? It’s not crazy. It’s real.

In May, the European Court of Justice felt that anyone in the EU should have the right to ask for material to be removed from search engines like Google, if those people consider that material to be “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive,” to quote the EU’s fact sheet (PDF) about the ruling.

How do search engines like Google make these decisions? What guidance are they given, especially when they’re also supposed to balance this censorship against another fundamental EU right, the public’s right for access to information?

The court provided none of this. It simply said that search engines should accept these requests and magically make their own decisions.

Like China, The EU Now Practices Self-Censorship

That’s exactly how China handles its own censorship requirements. Like the EU, China doesn’t impose censorship by issuing clear guidelines about what is and isn’t acceptable. Instead, it just expects companies to somehow know what to censor.

Consider the situation Google was in, when it undertook censorship of its search engine in China. It wasn’t given a list of material to block. It was just supposed to figure out what was and wasn’t acceptable. As Steven Levy describes in his excellent book, In The Plex:

Though the government demanded censorship, it didn’t hand out a complete list of what wasn’t allowed. Following the law required self-censorship, with the implicit risk that if a company failed to block information that the Chinese government didn’t want its citizens to see, it could lose its license.

That was actually an interesting problem, and if nothing else, Googlers loved to solve such brain-twisters. In this case, they came up with an elegant solution. Google would exhaustively examine and probe the sites of competitors, such as China’s top search engine, Baidu, testing them with risky keywords, and see what they blocked.

Exactly as with China, the EU expects Google and other search engines to make difficult judgment calls on a case-by-case basis. It’s demanding that the search engines make decisions that before the ruling might have involved judges or government bodies specifically charged with this type of work. And when Google gets it wrong, there’s an EU official ready to criticize.

I think many even outside the EU would agree with the concept of a Right To Be Forgotten, that someone who made a one-time minor mistake or a long-ago embarrassing action should be able to remove it from the top search results for their name.

But as Europe is now discovering, having a court grant this new right without some better guidelines on exactly how it should be used, or not used, is fraught with issues — among them, enabling the effective censorship of the press. That’s because even if the law removes content only from a search engine like Google, but not from a media outlet itself, the inability for people to easily find the content is de facto censorship.

 

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Legal: Censorship | Top News

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About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • John Stimpson

    It irks me that this is the case but realistically what can we do? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the kind of guidelines that could be given to Google to more effectively, or moreover fairly, achieve what they must in regards to online content.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamharveyuk William Harvey

    Hi Danny,

    What you’re seeing right now are teething issues in new legislation, nearly all EU countries, especially the UK uphold free speech in it’s entirety and the ruling, in my opinion, was meant to remove false and damaging information. Other marketing and information channels have to do it, why not search engines?

    Saying that, it’s a mammoth task for any company to control along with legislation that can be taken as wide as you like (typical EU policy making). But rest assured, the UK are working on it and if the EU don’t make the legislation tighter the UK will move to have it dropped.

    An alternative method, rather than putting it all on Google’s shoulders, would be a similar set up to the “WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center”.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/10956399/EU-will-look-like-China-unless-it-abandons-right-to-be-forgotten-minister-warns.html

    ————-

    For the first time yesterday I dealt with a company regarding a site that disappeared from Google SERPs, it looks like the owner used this ruling and because his name is on the footer of every page, he lost all organic hits.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamharveyuk William Harvey

    One area that would completely tighten this up would be to ask for an affidavit from from the person asking for the removal. Ask them to provide hard evidence of false information and maybe ask them to have a lawyer to agree and sign off information as being incorrect, misleading and damaging.

    To ask a company to make an important decision on incorrect and damaging information, and weighing up freedom of information based on limited information is unworkable.

    To me the EU haven’t thought this through properly and should have consulted Google and others in length to come up with a workable solution.

  • http://www.pathawks.com Pat Hawks

    Why not search engines?
    Because search engines are a tertiary source.

    A search engine never says “Alex is a thief.”
    A search engine will only say “Ben says on his website that Alex is a thief.”

    If you have a problem with something a newspaper publishes, you should go to the newspaper. Don’t go to every newsstand in town asking them to tear out a few pages.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamharveyuk William Harvey

    There’s no other medium that can collect information, publish it and not be held accountable for the removal of such information, if the information turns out to be false and damaging to an individual.

    And a court will always go to the publisher first to have the information withdrawn leaving the claimant to go after the source.

    It’s been like this from year dot, I can’t see why it’s different for a search engine.

    Why do we have the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and take down notices? It’s for protection, as is the RtbF ruling but on the other end of the spectrum.

    Everyone has different views on this, and rightly so, but I do agree this is a mess. It’s way too hard to manage for any company so I feel an alternative method should be set up similar to “WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center”.

    If it’s serious the court can make a judgement and instruct search engines to take it down.

    Leaving it to Google’s judgement is the wrong choice, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and they need clear rules and instructions, which they don’t have.

    It’s a mess.

  • CedricMi

    Yet another hysterical and insulting post about non existing right to be forgotten.

    It is a right to selective deletion, in a search engine only, within very strict
    boundaries and if there is no prevailing of the general public in having access
    to that information upon a search relating to the data subject’s name.

    Search engines do not have “to magically make these decisions”. In most cases, such as incorrect, not up-to-date or damaging personal information without a public
    interest, it will be easy for search engines to decide whether to delete/hide
    the information.

    In some cases, things will be difficult to decide, especially at the beginning where
    there is neither experience nor jurisprudence. It will cost a little money to
    search engines. But it’s a very small price to pay for the right to earn droves
    of money by indexing personal information without consent. Most businesses have
    legal constraints, and this one certainly does not look disproportionate in
    cost or unease of implementation.

    And with time, things will get easier for both the search engines and the citizens evaluating whether they can and should exert this right or not.

    Second, this isn’t a state censorship, this is a process initiated by citizens.
    Citizens which cannot ask newspapers, magazines or websites to erase
    information.

    This isn’t self-censorship either. Nobody is asking Google or any other search engine to proactively hide personal data. Data will be hidden only if there is a valid
    demand by a citizen. Search engines are free to oppose requests they deem unjustified and wait if and when the citizen goes to court to contest the decision.

    Third, do you really believe that Chinese search engines are treated the same way Google was treated in China? Do you really believe that the Chinese government does not interfere directly with search engines and DNS servers with very clear guidances whenever it chooses to?
    Look no further than Tiananmen’s celebration or the July first march in
    Hong-Kong or the unofficial referendum on its chief executive.

    So no, this isn’t a right to be forgotten.

    No, this isn’t comparable to censorship in China.

    Are mistakes being done by Google right now? Sure. And it’s absolutely fine. It’s part of the Learning process of a court decision that isn’t even 2 months old.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamharveyuk William Harvey

    Totally agree. The term “right to be forgotten” should never have been used in the first place. And the comparisons to China – well, nobody is going to take that seriously.

    “So no, this isn’t a right to be forgotten.
    No, this isn’t comparable to censorship in China.”

  • André Rebentisch

    What is often overlooked is that the Court didn’t rule on that but decided that the existing rules would also be enforceable against Google subsidiaries in Europe.

  • keaner

    “There’s no other medium that can collect information, publish it and not
    be held accountable for the removal of such information, if the
    information turns out to be false and damaging to an individual.”

    We aren’t talking about false info though, we are talking about someone who did something wrong, got caught, then wants it removed.

  • keaner

    i agree with Danny this IS looking allot like china

  • keaner

    “In most cases, such as incorrect, not up-to-date or damaging personal information without a public
    interest, it will be easy for search engines to decide whether to delete/hide
    the information.”

    There should be no reason at all that a search engine needs to remove “damaging personal information” if its true.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamharveyuk William Harvey

    That’s not how I understand the law, as the UK justice minister says “there’s no automatic right to be forgotten” then leads on to explain there has to be false information that leads to damaging an individual in some way. And true information should be left as freedom of speech. Essentially saying is stays live.

    The law is difficult to understand, the Good intentions are there but the RtbF name is wrong and badly handled by both the EU and Google.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamharveyuk William Harvey

    I agree and that’s not what we’re suggesting, or the EU.

  • keaner

    that is exactly what they are suggesting as far as I can see. If you take a look at the recent RTBF requests that is exactly what is happening

  • keaner

    I agree the EU is handling it very badly, and google is doing exactly what I would do if the EU tried to “china” me. Create a huge mess on purpose and then after enough people are angry, point the blame at the EU.

    Suppressing information, ie: making it hard to find on purpose .
    Is censorship in my eyes

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamharveyuk William Harvey

    “tried to “china” me”

    Protect innocent individuals that may be affected for life through false highly available information? Is that what you call “china” me.

    Would you also be against sexting, should that be made freely available?

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    I didn’t say search engines shouldn’t have to censor. I said they should have good guidelines and perhaps aren’t the ones to make the decision. I think what’s happening in the UK is a good example of how this will be reconsidered, but the UK is but one of many countries in the EU. Conceivably, the UK’s search results could still be censored without UK rules — even if put in place — because someone outside the UK would make a request under the EU right.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    I didn’t say search engines shouldn’t have to censor. I said they should have good guidelines and perhaps aren’t the ones to make the decision. I think what’s happening in the UK is a good example of how this will be reconsidered, but the UK is but one of many countries in the EU. Conceivably, the UK’s search results could still be censored without UK rules — even if put in place — because someone outside the UK would make a request under the EU right.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    The minister is incorrect. There is an automatic right to be forgotten, in the sense that anyone has the right to ask a search engine to forget stuff. And the search engines are forgetting stuff, things that perhaps that same minister would disagree with. They just don’t know, because the requests are being granted without anyone knowing what they are. There is, of course, the right to reject requests. Some rejections are happening. But there may be plenty of things that reasonable people believe shouldn’t be pulled with is being removed now.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    There are no strict boundaries. There are three or four general principles that search engines are supposed to use to figure out whether that article about a convicted pedophile should be pulled. And as this is imposed upon the EU by an EU court, it is indeed state-backed censorship.

  • VI

    Attacking a search engine for pulling up information on the internet is either a: ignorance or b: going after deep pockets. I’m leaning towards b.

    If the intent is to allow information to be removed … then you go after the people hosting the content …. not the engine that found it.

  • VI

    what can we do? how about go after the people hosting the content? Google isn’t the internet … they shouldn’t be held responsible for what’s in it. The reality is that Google is worth money so they are better targets.

    This whole problem is largely generational anyway. Our kids are used to posting everything they do all day and have come to accept that they can pulled up the breakfast cereal they ate 3 years ago. It’s our generation that’s shocked to find out that everything we thought would be forgotten isn’t and we have to be more careful about our image than before.

    The real danger now is that these stupid rulings can have real impact on the freedom of our next generation just because “wahhh someone can look up if we had a bankruptcy”.

  • Pat Grady

    Rights give individuals decision sovereignty, they don’t impose actions on others. I have the right to free speech, but i can’t compel the TV stations to carry my political videos. I have a right to live, but can’t make others feed and house me. Making others “forget” imposes on their freedom to “remember” (and speak of it). Nobody has a right to be forgotten, they should rely on the grace of time and the balanced judgment of others to weigh and ignore minor past actions. Compelling people to forget, is an unreasonable violation of the rights of others. You can’t reconcile this imagined “right” against other actual rights, no matter how quaintly and warmly it may appeal to our sense of redemption. No guidelines can be written that can resolve this unresolvable question (plus, the family of the murdered rightfully see the murderer differently than I do). Logicians know this “right” is feel-good folly. We also know that politicians are illogical sycophants, so the poppycock will continue to flow. It would be more fun to require politicians to submit guidelines, then impose impeachable “workability” and “success” scoring on their submissions – nothing like responsibility to perform, to winnow the chaff. But we never require our “protectors” to achieve, we want them to hand out free cookies and warm milk, tuck us into our cozy little beds. Keep us “safe” from those who remember the things we did, writing our recipe for censorship, knitting our own blindfolds, baking our Stalin pie. Protecting thieves, pedophiles, and murderers – this self-imposed sheepledom, makes me thoroughly sick.

  • keaner

    if the info is false then its fair to remove it, if it is not false then it should not be removed simply because joe blow doesnt want people to know he is a crook,slimeball,thug etc

    I don’t even understand the sexting argument?

  • CedricMi

    An information may be damaging for someone for her very own reason, and still not relevant to others.

  • CedricMi

    No this isn’t.
    A search engine has every right to fight a court decision it deems unjustified. Indeed,
    In the case of a pedophile, there are strict laws whether, and for how long the information is to be kept public.
    So if you think that duration is too short, you are against the relevant pedophile law. not this court decision on named search.

  • Ian Waring

    The case needs to go back for reconsideration. The central premise is that there are three valid reasons to remove *original* source material at all, period. Google just index the original content there without modification.

    The three cases, backed already by specific laws, are:

    1) Libel
    2) Slander
    3) Obeying public data disclosure time limits for personal financial misfortune or criminal record checks.

    Case (3) is to prevent undue prejudice or financial punishment after a specified time limit has passed. For example, I’m led to believe a personal bankruptcy is considered “done” after 7 years and no longer allowed to be publicly reported. So, in the case of the Spanish gentleman, the correction should have been to tell the publisher to remove his name from the source article.

    These rules are such that the jurisdiction is exclusively and unambiguously with the courts

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