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Thanks To “Right To Be Forgotten,” Google Now Censors The Press In The EU
The EU’s Right To Be Forgotten removals have been happening for about a week on Google, and now news publications are discovering the fallout. For some searches, you can’t find their news stories relating to certain people.
In particular, both the BBC and the Guardian have shared examples of content that’s now been “forgotten” in Google. The stories remain on the sites of both publications. You just can’t locate them for certain searches related to the names of individuals they are about. (Postscript 5:50pm ET: Add the Daily Mail to the list, which has posted about removal notices it has received).
What’s Been Forgotten
Among the forgotten are these pieces:
- Three stories from October and November 2010 about Scottish football referee Dougie McDonald, who self-admittedly lied about reversing a penalty. The Daily Mail also received a similar request for a story it has. (Guardian / Daily Mail)
- A story from 2002 about Paul Baxendale-Walker being accused of fraud; he was later found not guilty of that charge (Guardian)
- An archive page with a week’s worth of news, where it’s hard to tell which person might have been involved (Guardian)
- An article about how workers in France were decorating their office windows with Post-It notes (Guardian)
- A 2007 commentary about Stan O’Neal, the then chair of Merrill Lynch (BBC)
- A story about Tesco workers attacking their employer on social media (Daily Mail)
- A story about a couple having sex on a train (Daily Mail)
- A story about a Muslim man who accused Cathay Pacific of discrimination (Daily Mail)
The media outlets know that these stories have been dropped from Google because both have received the new notices that Google’s sending out to inform publishers when removals happen, such as this example we illustrated today on our Search Engine Land site:
The BBC cited its example; James Ball, the author of the Guardian article about its removals, confirmed to me via email having received notices for all the Guardian removals. He also said that so far, no further notices have come in.
The Mess That Is The Right To Be Forgotten
This latest chapter with removals is showing how messy and confusing this whole process is, one that wasn’t developed by any organized attempt to figure out pros, cons and implementation issues but instead by flat decree by the EU Court Of Justice. Consider these major points:
- The freedom of the press issues are becoming apparent
- It’s difficult to know what was forgotten and why, yet…
- It’s becoming easier to remember what was supposedly “forgotten”
De Facto Censorship Of The Press
It’s very important to understand that the EU’s action is not causing content to be removed from publishers themselves, which would no doubt have raised a huge outcry among major news outlets. They usually don’t remove content they’ve published without an exceptionally good reason or a court order.
Rather, the articles are being removed from Google, for certain searches. The court went this route understanding that if you pull something out of Google (and search engines generally), that can effectively cause the material to be hidden more easily than someone trying to track down many different publishers that might carry the same thing.
That’s especially an issue when it comes to “scraper” sites, where someone might simply copy the content off another site without permission and republish it. Copyright owners know what a “whack-a-mole” situation this is, where getting one removed only makes room for another to spring up.
But the EU action is arguably a de facto censorship of the press. News stories are being made to disappear without any court review. Instead, Google seems to be following the letter of the new EU mandate and rubber-stamping any reasonable request that comes along.
Hard To Know Who Wants Something Forgotten
The removals are also leading to confusion about who might have tried to get something pulled. Consider the case of Stan O’Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch, in that BBC article that has been removed.
If you search for his name on Google UK, you get one of the new notices that Google shows to searchers to indicate a Right To Be Forgotten removal may have happened:
So is O’Neal working to scrub his record out of Google? Salon thinks so, but we don’t actually know.
See, those notices are also showing up for names even if there was no removal, as our story on Search Engine Land from yesterday explains:
In addition, if I search on Google.com — where removals do not happen — I don’t find the story in question. For all we know, it could involve one of the people who left a comment. Consider this:
The lower arrow points to a notice for a search on Peter Dragomer, suggesting that something has been removed from Google for his name. He’s also the first person who commented on the O’Neal story. Maybe Dragomer found that this story was coming up tops for his name in Google, didn’t like it and decided to remove it.
Chances are, that’s not the case. As you can see from the upper arrow, the article in question is showing up for his name. The removal notice is likely appearing because of Google’s intended policy to make it a blanket notice for all name searches. That means using the presence of such a notice to effectively convict someone of filing a removal notice is wrong. You can’t trust that notice.
All we know for certain is that Google told the BBC that this page would be censored in Google. We don’t know for what name, and guesswork remains that — just guesswork, which could be wrong.
Yes, Easier To Know Who Wants Something Forgotten
Conversely, as these notices continue to flow out, it’s likely to become easier to know if someone did ask for a removal — which is contrary to the EU court’s goal and a result of it poorly thinking out how this new mandate would actually happen.
In Ball’s article at the Guardian, he suggested perhaps setting up a Twitter account to tweet all the links that have been removed, as they come in. That or something else would happen, and coupled with searches on Google.com compared to EU-versions of Google, it might be possible to compile a growing list of the articles some people have demanded be forgotten.
In turn, ironically, that might make these articles even more remembered. Consider this:
If former referee Dougie McDonald really did put in requests to remove three Guardian articles about his penalty incident, he’s got a lot more work to do. It’s not hard to find other publications that covered it, with the first and third arrows being examples. Under Google’s current system, he’d had to request removal of each and every article individually.
The second arrow also indicates another problem. For anyone especially noteworthy, making a removal request from a major publication probably will get that publication to write an article about your request, which you’ll only get removed by filing a new request, which probably will generate yet another article and so on.
The Removal That Didn’t Happen
The last arrow is especially important. One of the Guardian articles that was supposedly removed from Google for a search on Dougie McDonald is showing up at the bottom of the results, for this search that I conducted on Google UK. Also, further up (but not marked with an arrow) is the story supposedly removed from the Daily Mail, still showing up.
Maybe the story was removed because someone else was mentioned? Maybe it only shows for other variations of the name? Maybe if I were actually in the UK, it might be dropped? It’s hard to tell, though indications are that it even shows up there.
So why would Ball think it was dropped? In his article, he searched for “Dougie McDonald guardian” into both Google.com and Google UK. Because he didn’t see the three articles the Guardian got notices about showing him, he assumed that the articles were dropped for McDonald’s name.
But a search for “Dougie McDonald guardian” isn’t a pure name search, which is all the EU order applies to. If you really want to know if something was dropped, you have to search for just the name alone.
And even then, it can be confusing.
Postscript (July 8): Google has confirmed to Marketing Land that it is actually filtering for names as well as those names plus other words. So if an “Emily White” objected to a story showing for her name, and Google granted a removal, the story would no longer appear for her name or for her name with other words such as “Emily White bankrupt”
Google’s Mess, The EU’s Mess & Moving Forward
This isn’t a mess that Google created nor wanted, but so far, I’d say the company has been handling the process in a fairly inept fashion.
It declared it would do notices of removals at the bottom of search results. Then it ended up in a place where it’s showing notices even if removals don’t happen, so that its attempt at transparency has turned into an exercise in confusion.
It declared it would give site owners notice when removals are happening. But those removals don’t explain what searches the removals are happening for, or why, so publishers can’t raise any objections.
Most importantly, it has foolishly decided to be the first arbiter of what gets censored under this new, ill-defined and easily abused right. Far better, as I wrote after the new right was mandated, to kick all these requests over to the various EU privacy bodies and let them make such decisions:
One strategy would be for Google (or any search engine) to decide not to decide. Any request it receives, it could respond that unless the request relates to some very specific situations, it will be rejected because Google doesn’t believe it can fairly judge between the right of privacy and the right of free speech. Instead, Google could recommend that someone go to a particular country’s privacy agency for a ruling and let that agency make the call.
Instead, Google decided to go ahead with making the initial decision. That leads directly to the Guardian’s article where the headline and subhead that puts the blame on Google, as the bold parts below emphasize:
EU’s right to be forgotten: Guardian articles have been hidden by Google
Publishers must fight back against this indirect challenge to press freedom, which allows articles to be ‘disappeared’. Editorial decisions belong with them, not Google
Make no mistake. Google doesn’t want to be doing this type of censorship. It fought against it, and ultimately, this is a problem for the EU governments to figure out. But by making decisions about what should be censored, rather than initially rejecting all requests for regulatory review — as it could have done — Google has helped make the situation get even messier.
I am sympathetic to the company not wanting to fight harder on this, however. The privacy regulators seem to uniformly hate it. It’s also under severe anti-trust attention in the EU. It feels like Google decided it was easier to cave on the issue and just give in.
Ultimately, it’s an EU problem, however. Maybe, now that press publications are realizing that they face de facto censorship, they’ll put more pressure on how removals are handled.
In the end, many people can sympathize with someone wanting results about their one-time mistake or long-ago embarrassing action removed. Unfortunately, the EU’s rules seem to give the same right to be forgotten to these people as it does to pedophiles, serious criminals, fraudsters, politicians and others. It feels like there ought be be a better way.
Postscript: Some Answers From Google
I got a few answers from Google on related questions to this story:
It wouldn’t comment on whether Dougie McDonald or Stan O’Neal put in requests for removals of articles about themselves. I didn’t expect Google would comment, but I wanted to at least ask.
It also wouldn’t comment on whether the fact that articles about Dougie McDonald listed for removal but still showing up for his name, as explained above, means that perhaps the requests were related to having them removed for someone else’s name. My own takeaway here remains as explained above — people who are assuming McDonald made these requests might be drawing the wrong conclusion.
Google also wouldn’t comment on how many news articles have been impacted so far, nor give any update on how many requests it is currently processing. When the form first opened, Google was receiving about 10,000 requests per day. I’ve tried several times for an update on these figures, to understand if the pace is growing or dropping. No luck. My assumption is that the pace is dropping; if it was growing, I’d have expected Google to publicize that as proof of what a burden the new right is turning into.
Google did confirm that those outside the EU, who go to an EU-specific version of Google, will see removals as if they were in the EU. IE, it’s been clear that Google might remove content from Google UK for those in the UK. It was also clear that those in the UK who go to Google.com wouldn’t have the content removed. But it wasn’t clear if those outside the UK going to Google UK would get censored results. The answer: yes.
Google also confirmed that removals are only done for exact names submitted. So, if someone like Larry Page wanted results removed for his name and submitted for “Larry Page,” that would happen. But they wouldn’t be removed for “Lawrence Page” unless a separate request was submitted.
Finally, can people outside the EU have their content removed? Google’s removal form doesn’t make this clear nor require any type of proof of citizenship or residency. However, Google told me the form can be filed by EU citizens or residents. So for others — they seem to be out of luck.
Postscript 2: Google has now restored some of the links. Our follow-up story has more: The EU’s Right To Be Forgotten Is A Mess & How Google’s Making It Worse
- How Google’s New “Right To Be Forgotten” Form Works: An Explainer
- Google Begins Removing Search Results Over “Right To Be Forgotten” Demands
- Why Everyone In The EU May Look Like They’ve Made A “Right To Be Forgotten” Request In Google
- Google Notifying Publishers For Right To Be Forgotten Removals