Google accused of abusing 'right to be forgotten' to gin up anger against the law

One bit of evidence I presented in May, to back up the contention that the Obama Administration is unwise to cede Internet control to an international body, was the creation of a “right to be forgotten” by Europe’s highest court.  This was an interpretation of Europe’s privacy laws that allowed people to demand search engines, such as Google, must delete links to “irrelevant or incorrect personal information.”  

The case that led to the ruling involved a Spanish man who sued to force Google to delete all search-engine references to a story about his unpaid debts from 1998, which have since been settled.  Even though the story was completely accurate at the time of publication, and Google had nothing to do with writing or publishing it, the search engine was held responsible for erasing it from history, because the man later paid off his debts, and he felt the old story made him look bad.  This is the sort of nonsense the American First Amendment would stop dead in its tracks… which is why control of Internet domains should not pass from beyond the protection of the First Amendment.

Google now faces accusations that it has deliberately abused the “right to be forgotten,” in an effort to make the European court’s decision look ridiculous and stoke public anger against it.  From the UK Independent:

Ryan Heath, spokesman for the European Commission’s vice-president Neelie Kroes, said that Google’s decision to remove a BBC article by economics editor Robert Peston about ex-Merrill Lynch boss Stan O’Neal – one of those blamed for helping cause the global financial crisis – was “not a good judgement”.

He said he could not see a “reasonable public interest” for the action, adding that the court ruling should not allow people to “Photoshop their lives”.

Describing Google’s actions as “tactical”, he added: “It may be that they’ve decided that it’s simply cheaper to just say yes to all of these requests.”

Google sources strenuously denied any suggestion that they were misinterpreting the ruling. But privacy campaigners accused the internet giant of playing “silly political games” in an attempt to undermine it.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group said: “The ruling was clear that results that relate to articles that are in the public interest shouldn’t be removed.”

He added: “Google may dislike the ruling and want to discredit it, but that doesn’t mean that they should apply it incorrectly in order to provoke a reaction.”

Alexander Hanff, chief executive of the Think Privacy group, accused Google of removing links unnecessarily “in order to apply political pressure into having the ruling challenged”.

He added: “They are hoping to use ‘freedom of the press’ as a means of attacking the decision and are effectively creating moral panic by making people believe that they are being forced to censor.”

Google has also deleted links to stories about singer Kelly Osborne, a referee accused of lying about a penalty call, a former president of the Law Society who used dirty language in public, a couple that had sex on a train, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, new trends in sofa design, and a Muslim job applicant who accused an airline of racism.  All of those stories are still up on the Internet, and can be found using other search engines, using Google servers that lie outside the domain of the European courts (such as the one in the United States) or even by using alternative search methods on the European Google; you just can’t find them by Googling the names of the people involved.

Google says it’s being crushed by the volume of requests to delete search links – 70,000 requests in the past month alone, which would cover a quarter of a million web pages in total.  And it’s not just Google, as the Independent story also mentions the BBC getting swamped by “right to be forgotten” demands.  It’s creepy enough to think that a search engine can be held liable for accurately linking to accurate studies published by news organizations outside its control; even creepier to see news organizations themselves taking custom orders to erase history.

This is something critics of the “right to be forgotten” decision predicted; perhaps a few more lawsuits would spell the end of search engines as Europeans know them, because providers would conclude they’re accepting too much legal liability by allowing searches of old news items, and it’s impossible to keep up with requests for history deletion.  Google’s taking some heat for “making a mockery” of a court ruling it doesn’t like, but some observers understand and support the point it’s trying to make about the absurdity of the law:

Reacting to the deletion of links to his 2007 blog post about the financial crisis, Mr Petson cited the fact that the content can still be found by simply using Google’s global website as making “a whole nonsense of the ruling”.

Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, cited Google’s the decision to remove a link to the blog, which featured “wholly accurate and legal content”, as highlighting “exactly why the ECJ ruling was ridiculous and detrimental to freedom of the press in Europe.”

And Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, a member of an expert panel set up by Google to help it deal with the controversy, slammed the European ruling as “an utter and complete disaster” and branded it “a major human rights violation”. The decision to uphold the right to be forgotten is “clear and direct censorship of the worst kind,” he said.

While it’s easy to sympathize with Google’s resistance to the ridiculous burden placed upon it, especially for Americans whose understanding of free speech makes this whole business look like a Monty Python skit, it’s also reminiscent of the flap over Facebook playing games with users’ news feeds without their knowledge or consent, to test their reactions.  Once again, a mighty Internet company that survives on trust from its users is abusing that trust to pursue its own agenda.  

In this case, a lot of people understand and support Google’s agenda, which involves getting out from under a silly regulatory scheme that imposes gigantic costs upon it, and could ultimately undermine the entire Internet experience for a sizable chunk of the world’s population.  But if they’re mischievously altering search history to prove a point, it’s an uneasy betrayal of trust between the company and its users… even those who support the point it’s trying to make.