Thanks To “Right To Be Forgotten,” Google Now Censors The Press In The EU

right-forgotten-erase-past-600

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:

stan o'neal

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:

Peter_Dragomer_-_Google_Search

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:

dougie mcdonald

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

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Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Features & Analysis | Google: Search | Google: SEO | 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.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Andrew Shotland

    Clients are starting to get these notices for totally benign news articles. Kind of ridiculous.

  • Dr. Pete

    Honestly, I wonder if Google is following the letter of the law and allowing it to be a mess because that’s the best way to put pressure on the EU. If they use their discretion and do this “right”, the upshot may not be that bad. If they let it spin out of control, the EU might cave and Google will win the larger battle.

  • J_Boch

    Interesting to see how Google has chosen to fight this.

    I will say this now, the “Streisand effect” will burn more then one individual who tries to hide misdeeds that were already forgotten.

  • J_Boch

    Thinking on this further, this really has the possibility to REALLY muck things up by making all comment sections a liability.

    Say I compete against Marketingland and live in Europe. What is to stop me from making an anonymous profile, posting slanderous comments about myself or about someone I pay to perform the take down request. I do this for articles I compete against Marketingland on, maybe the whole site.

    The comments ARE inflammatory (intentionally so) so Google accepts my request. Marketingland gets notice that all their content has been taken down, but does not know it is because of something in the comments with no relation to the actual content.

    Even if Marketingland where to find these comments are the string that ties everything together, and remove them, they have no recourse to reinstate their excellent content under this system. They are hosed, I will gain, and it has nothing at all to do with ‘privacy’.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Possibly, but I don’t think that’s the case here. In particular, they could have followed the letter of the law as I pointed out in my highlight from a previous article and rejected everything. That would have caused the privacy bodies directly to have to deal with procedures, which would have gotten the EU much more motivated to do something.

  • Dr. Pete

    Fair point. I just wonder if that would’ve caused a “Google is cheating!” uproar. This may be a low friction way to make the system self-destruct. Then again, it seems like this idea may have been doomed to self-destruct no matter what Google did.

  • http://gurueffect.com/ Michael George

    Utterly ridiculous. This is a mess and it’s going to get messier. Wherever there are rules, there are those who strive to upset those rules. I know, because I might be one of those people. Skynet…er…Google is already way too powerful. Now they are taking part in this? It doesn’t surprise me at all. The only thing I am surprised at are the people who are surprised.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Your argument boils down to this: We should allow Google and only Google to determine what other people see about us. You need to think long and hard before demanding that kind of world because you won’t be able to give it back if you get what you ask for.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    “Honestly, I wonder if Google is following the letter of the law and allowing it to be a mess because that’s the best way to put pressure on the EU.”

    That is exactly what they are doing. They strive to publicly humiliate anyone who invokes their rights under the DMCA and this is no different.

  • http://sushubh.net/ chromaniac

    Google is asking for identification as proof that you are who you say you are.

  • Larry McKoder

    Google’s CEO once said that “every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.”

    I think the right to be forgotten is a far better idea. We need to bring this law to the United States.

  • narg

    Are you serious? We have an amendment against government censorship! Never gonna happen, never! Thank God too!

  • J_Boch

    I covered that. Fake slander against yourself, or pay/find some guy to be slandered and file the request in his name.

    A drivers license is hardly a high bar to clear.

  • Larry McKoder

    It is not the government that is censoring. It is me censoring what you can learn about me by googling my name.

    Today you can learn my age, my home address, my home phone number, names of my family members, and so on without ever talking to me. I didn’t publish any of this information online and I don’t want this information online and if it is online I don’t want it to be findable via google.

    The europeans are doing something right.

    PS: I notice you are using an alias. Clearly you value your privacy too, and would rather not follow Google’s recommendation of changing your name every few years.

  • GarettRogers

    I wonder if you could get a site or page removed by Google by simply mentioning someone’s name in some comments or something?

  • JPB

    So, the best way to neuter this law would be for multiple sites to link to this and other articles resuscitating the links. Thus, the right to be forgotten turns into the reality of being remembered even more loudly.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Google is abusing loopholes in the law to embarrass and humiliate people. They have no interest in user privacy or upholding laws. The best way to neuter their bad behavior is to recognize it for what it is and refuse to support it. No search engine should be more powerful than the rule of law. That is insane.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    That’s likely the case, it’s sounding like, with one of these examples involving Stan O’Neal. And it would be an interesting tactic.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    And who is forcing Google to raise a huge public stink about this in order to stir up the controversy? This is a manufactured hullabaloo. Google has always been opposed to individual rights to privacy and they have flouted many laws (sometimes paying huge fines for doing so).

    I would not be surprised if people in Europe start filing defamation suits against Google for sending out all those Webmaster notices. They may even challenge the notices in the SERPs as being excessive, since the purpose of removing the unwanted content was to protect their privacy.

  • blackdreamhunk

    What gives the right for news groups to censorship people comments?
    Google no different than news organization. Wasn’t Google plus created
    to for censorship and control?

  • blackdreamhunk

    where are my comments????

  • Chris Moran

    Hi Danny. I’m from the Guardian and I’m afraid that you’re wrong on the pure name search point… or something even weirder is going on. One of the reasons it’s confused is that Google appear to have reversed the decision on the Scottish referee (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/03/google-right-to-be-forgotten-law-uk-news-search-requests). At the point James wrote his article yesterday, Google was not returning the three articles for his name and site:theguardian.com. Suddenly yesterday that changed. The other pieces are unaffected and still don’t return when you combine the correct name with site:theguardian.com. Take a look at the Paris piece and the lawyer piece mentioned in mine and James’s articles and it’s pretty clear.

  • http://www.timacheson.com/ Tim Acheson

    Google is deliberately removing whole pages, clear public interest content, and content with questionable privacy implications, when it does not have to.

    Furthermore, the corporation is then informing the media about it to provoke misleading criticism of the EU ruling that it opposes. This is classic media manipulation. It is Google’s actions that are ridiculous, not the ruling. You are too gullible if you cannot see through this transparent and typically Google propaganda exercise.

  • http://www.luanaspinetti.com/ Luana Spinetti

    Just a couple of considerations:

    1. It’s surprising – yet concerning – how much national or union laws affect the whole world, not just the limited area of the nation it was ruled in. I’m Italian, yet the FTC disclosure law affected me as a blogger and now, EU’s privacy law (the cookie law and this new “right to be forgotten” ruing) affects everybody in world. Looks like the Internet makes for one big nation where all of us live.

    2. The law is not wrong, but it should be taken with a *balanced* approach. The right to privacy can’t turn into a paranoia or worst, censorship, and the freedom of speech can’t turn into a right to defame people with false accusations. As they say, truth is in the middle:

    - Google should make (and communicate) a distinction between requests made out of paranoia (or political manipulation of data) and requests triggered by defamation, lies and a motivated sense of danger. The point is finding the balance between two rights: privacy and speech.

    - If the thing goes overboard, I know that, as a EU citizen, I’m not going to support this law any further. Citizens can push law modifications if they act together and provide strong motivations. Mass paranoia and censorship, if they happen, are good reasons to amend the law.

    - Luana

  • Pat Grady

    What a tangled web they’ve woven, logically. Calling it a “right” sure doesn’t help.

  • Pat Grady

    Since many EU countries make Denial a crime, I’m wondering what will happen when some Holocaust perp’s descendants want to exercise their “right” to be forgotten…

  • Pat Grady

    If you think I’m being extreme, read this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_be_forgotten#In_Germany

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