Google wants to forget the “Right to be Forgotten”

Earlier this month the highest EU court ruled that individuals have the ‘right to be forgotten’ in Google’s search results. This means that any member of the public can ask Google to remove specific webpages from its search results if those pages contain information that is inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”.

Of course this immediately led to outcries of censorship and luddism, especially from the usual Silicon Valley cultists that advocate transparency and believe privacy is an outdated concept. Except when it comes to their own secrets and privacy, of course.

This commentary in The Guardian is one of the few pieces of constructive, balanced reporting on the whole kerfuffle. And this piece in The Register shows how a cooperative media is dancing along to Google’s PR song, resulting in dramatic misreporting of the actual facts.

We need to keep in mind that what Silicon Valley wants to know about you (which is everything, everywhere, all the time) is not necessarily conducive to a free and open society.

In the data-utopia envisioned by these Silicon Valley technology barons, we as the general public will be completely subject to the whims of the owners of that data. And the owners will be the internet giants like Google and Facebook and the advertisers they sell the data to.

We as citizens will not own our own data. We will have precious little control over who sees our personal information, and how it will be used. In this post-Prism world, that should really frighten you. If it doesn’t, watch this talk:

Now Google has begun to implement this Right to be Forgotten and has created a form that people can use to request webpages to be removed from European versions of Google.

This form asks for a lot of information, including a copy of the photo ID of the person affected. More than that, Ektor Tsolodimos discovered [Dutch] that the form itself seems subject to its own censorship in Google’s search results: it contains the noindex robots meta tag, and there is no link to it from anywhere on the domain.

The meta robots noindex tag on the Google form

So, despite a crapload of very high authority links pointing to it (787 referring domains in Majestic SEO, and counting) Google will not show the form in its own search results, no matter how hard you try.

Majestic SEO reports over 700 links to the form from high quality websites

How’s that for irony? I can’t help but get the sense that Google, in typical fashion, is behaving like a spoilt 5-year old brat and throwing a bit of a childish temper tantrum about the whole thing.

Not that this has stopped people from submitting the form. To date Google reports it has already received thousands of requests, so the company’s infantile attempts at obscuring the form have obviously not had the desired result.

Rumour has it that when Google starts removing content per the EU ruling, it will make a statement to that effect in the relevant search results, as it currently does for DMCA notices:

Google shows this notice when it has removed content from its search results due to a DMCA request

This is, again, done in the name of full transparency. And this, too, reveals the depth of Google’s hypocrisy. For example, when Google removes a site as the result of a manual penalty, no such notice is given.

Apparently Google feels its own forms of censorship are perfectly legitimate and not worth pointing out.

Google’s Sergey Brin has said he’d rather forget the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling, but I for one am rather pleased that the European courts are not slavishly following Google’s monopolistic hunger for more data, and is allowing European citizens to push back and protect their own privacy in increasing measures.

Because if we don’t start to protect our own data, things are going to get a lot worse. Transparency is not the answer – it’s privacy that truly sets us free.

Addendum 03 June 2014: What’s also interesting about this EU ruling, and hasn’t been highlighted anywhere in the media, is how it suggests that the EU courts see Google’s search results not as a publication of editorial content – a legal claim Google makes to protect its search results as a form of free speech – but as a gateway to information published online.

This status of information gateway could theoretically put Google on a legislative par with internet service providers, and as such could subject the search engine to laws akin to net neutrality, as well as more restrictive antitrust legislation. Now there’s some interesting food for thought.

General, Hype, Legal


  1. “Search engines have links to resources. Now under certain circumstances they can’t continue to link to these resources even if the resources themselves continue to exist, are held to be legal, and contain factual information about individuals. Yeah, now publicly-accessible information can hide in plain site!”

    I honestly don’t see the difference between that and:

    “Libraries have catalogs with the call numbers of books. Now under certain circumstances they can’t continue to have certain books in their catalogs, even if the books themselves continue to exist on the shelves, are held to be legal, and contain factual information about individuals. Yeah, now publicly-accessible information can hide in plain site!”

    Do you think a library should be compelled to remove an item from its catalog if somebody “wants to be forgotten” on the basis that the information contained in that book is held to be “no longer relevant?” If so, who is the arbitrator of “relevance” in making that determination?

    If you don’t think libraries should be compelled to remove entries from their catalogs at a reader’s request, how is that conceptually different from the situation the search engines currently find themselves in in the EU?

    1. I think there are significant differences between a library and Google’s index of the web, Aaron, and I think you know that too. For one, there’s not one unified library that everyone in the world has instant and unlimited access to.

      The internet in general, and Google in particular, has changed the way we access information drastically. That means our laws governing information need to be changed too. I for one would prefer laws that err on the side of caution and privacy, rather than laws that favour transparency over all.

      Like I say in my post, transparency mostly favours those who own the data. And that’s not you and me – that’s the companies that make money from it, and the governments that can access it on a whim.

  2. As Philip Sheldrake noted today, as this legislation (or, rather, legal decision – the fuzziness of the “relevance” stricture never would have made it into a law) doesn’t actually remove the information from the internet, those that have the means of accessing it through proprietary mechanisms (like private databases) can still leverage it. So the decision sets the stage for two tiers of information availability that favors those able to purchase information – the wealthy.

    Just as the general decision favors those with the wherewithal to use a legal sledgehammer to forward specious claims of “irrelevance” through the courts – the wealthy.

    As for your preference for laws that “err on the side of caution and privacy, rather than laws that favour transparency over all” I think there’s always the risk that just such noble and sensible impulses in regard to privacy matters may be co-opted by powerful interests in order to keep their nefarious dealings away from public scrutiny.

    I for one like to err on the side of laws that have the public good – our collective interest – as their highest priority. I know you’re an advocate for the public good too, Barry: we obviously (I would think) disagree here whether or not this law serves the interest of the public good.

    I’m sobered this week in particular – the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre falls on 4 June – to think of how legislated withholding of search results has thus far being employed. Namely as a weapon of oppressors, not for the defenders of liberty. But yes, I know this is an analogy.

    But I think the library example is less so. That a library catalog is neither unified nor instant (though that’s not the case any longer with, say, the Library of Congress or the British Library) doesn’t change the fact they are indexes of information, and that the notion of de-indexing a book that remains in a library is patently absurd.

    And were libraries to become more instant, and to have much larger and more granular holdings that included large number of monographs on individuals, I would not advocate ceding control of that index to a government body because of that change.

    Ah well, while we may disagree about this decision, I hope you at least understand that my reason for disagreeing with it isn’t because I’m a “Silicon Valley cultist.” :)

    1. I think our varied opinions on the subject stem from cultural differences, Aaron. As a continental European our culture has been subjected first-hand to what can happen if too much information is given to a handful of people with nefarious intent. It’s why Europeans in general tend to favour privacy much more than Americans do.

      Your analogy with Tiananmen square is not particularly apt and, I daresay, a case of scaremongering that is so typical of the discourse on the subject. China is not an oppressive dictatorship because access to information is restricted, no more than America is a free country because all information is freely accessible (which it isn’t, by the way). We should not confuse the symptom for the disease.

      And, as has already been laboriously covered, any information regarding public officials is not subject to the Right to be Forgotten – it governs private citizens only.

      At its core I think giving citizens more control over their information can only be a good thing.

Comments are closed.