If it's not on Google, does it exist?


6 August 2014
Eileen Yu

It's been said that once something is on the Internet, it's there forever and can be retrieved anytime someone searches for it.

Well, this is no longer true for some content, following a May ruling by the European Court of Justice that allows data the "right to be forgotten". The case had involved a Spanish national who, in the 1990s, received an auction notice on his repossessed property. News about the auction was listed high on search results when his name was Googled.

He filed a complaint with the national data protection agency, arguing that this information was outdated and no longer relevant, and therefore, should be removed from web searches. The European court agreed and instructed Google to remove links to newspaper articles about the auction when his name is searched. The actual articles online, though, can still be accessed and found if other keywords are used.  

As a result of the ruling, Google availed an online form that people can submit to request the removal of search results. Microsoft has also made available an online form for right-to-be-forgotten requests.

In Google's case, the move triggered a slew of requests from across Europe. And it appears the search giant is struggling to cope. As of July 18, it had received 91,000 requests for the right to be forgotten,  including 17,500 from France involving 58,000 URLs, and 16,500 from Germany involving 57,000 URLs. Its global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer said of these, 32 per cent were rejected while 15 per cent were asked to provide more information. Some 53 per cent of requests were granted.

Last week, it sent a letter to Europe's privacy lawmakers detailing the difficulties and additional manpower it had to hire to handle such requests.

"We are not automating decisions about these removals. We have to weigh each request individually on its merits and that is done by people. We have many people working full-time on the process, and ensuring enough resources are available for the processing of requests required a significant hiring effort," Fleischer wrote.

He also outlined challenges the company faced in processing the requests: "We generally have to rely on the request for information, without assurance beyond the requester's own assertions as to its accuracy. Some requests turn out to have been made with false and inaccurate information.

"Even if requesters provide us with accurate information, they understandably may avoid presenting facts that are not in their favour. As such, we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favour of preserving the accessibility of a search result."

In addition, questions remain over what kind of data has the right to be forgotten. For instance, Fleischer noted, what is the delineation of a public figure's right to privacy in relation to this rule? How should public interest weigh in handling such requests? What is the public's right to information when it involves reviews of professional or consumer services, or criminal histories?

Others also questioned whether Google should be given the role to decide what information should or should not be removed. News organisations have, not surprisingly, spoken out against the ruling.

BBC economics editor Robert Peston Robert Peston lamented that Google had "killed this example of my journalism" after he was told links to a 2007 article about former Merrill Lynch Chairman Stan O'Neal had been removed from some searches.

Other stories reported to have been removed included news about airliner Cathay Pacific refusing to employ a Muslim because of his name and of a couple seen having sex on a train. MailOnline publisher Martin Clarke said, "These examples show what a nonsense the right to be forgotten is. It is the equivalent of going into libraries and burning books you don't like.

"MailOnline intends to regularly publish lists of articles deleted from Google's European search results so people can keep track of what has been deleted. There is no suggestion any of these articles are inaccurate."

Google also indicates when URLs have been removed from its searches, adding a notice at the bottom of the results page.

Which leads me to wander if requests for the right to be forgotten would backfire and lead to the Streisand effect, urging more people to want to read about the news that have been removed.

While a similar ruling is unlikely to reach the shores of several Asian economies, where laws protecting personal right to privacy are mostly non-existent or at best, nascent, I hope it never makes it way here.

Mandating a right to be forgotten is, at best, a desperate attempt to 'photoshop' and remove embarrassing moments in your life or wrongdoings in a corporate history; at worst, it's a form of censorship that western communities including the US and Europe ironically have been so fervently opposed to.

If allowed to perpetuate, it'll do the industry more harm than good. Track record, for instance, is an oft-cited criterion when choosing the right IT vendor with whom to partner and buy from. If organisations are given an easy way out to erase their business wrongdoings, how would customers be able to properly evaluate their options?

And shouldn't the public, instead of Google, decide for itself what data is relevant? Hasn't that always been the case anyway? Surely, no one today believes everything they read on the web is the truth, and nothing but the truth?

Let's not forget, too, about the cost implications. Right now, only search companies - primarily market leader Google - that appear to be held responsible for processing requests regarding the right to be forgotten. What if this is extended to company websites and, shudder, news agencies? How many man-hours would have to be spent handling such requests?

A possible solution would be for Google to provide a way to list search results chronically, so the public can decide for itself whether a piece of content posted in 2010 is more relevant than one posted in 2014.

Besides, removing URLs to a piece of content doesn't mean it doesn't exist, so why bother scrubbing? Wouldn't a better solution be to do no evil so there's more reason to want to be remembered, rather than forgotten?