Google Acknowledges What A Mess This Is

The whole “right to be forgotten” thing is an absolute mess, and Google knows it. Google always knew it would be, which is why it always opposed the concept, but now it has no choice but t...
Google Acknowledges What A Mess This Is
Written by Chris Crum

The whole “right to be forgotten” thing is an absolute mess, and Google knows it. Google always knew it would be, which is why it always opposed the concept, but now it has no choice but to comply with law. The company is still being vocal in its opposition, while also trying to make people understand the difficult job it’s faced with, and why it’s going to make mistakes. From the sound of it, Google seems to be acknowledging that mistakes will continue to be made as it struggles with figuring out what it should be censoring from search results and what it should not.

I know I wouldn’t want to be in the position of having to make that call. Do you think Google is doing a reasonable job of handling its role in the court’s decision? Share your thoughts in the comments.

I’m going to assume that your’e at least somewhat familiar with what’s going on. If not, peruse these articles on the saga. In a very basic nutshell, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that search engines must take requests for content to be removed from search results when it’s “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive” in relation to the person being searched for.

Google has to remove search results, while the actual content may remain on the sites where published. The company equates this to keeping a book in a library, but removing it from the card catalog.

The search engine has only been actually removing content from search results for a couple weeks now, but there have already been controversial examples of removed results (unsurprisingly), which Google has now admitted that it shouldn’t have actually removed.

David Drummond, Google’s Chief Legal Officer and Senior Vice President of Corporate Development, wrote an article for The Guardian, which the company has re-posted to its official blog, discussing the challenges it faces, and the errors it has already made.

Google has a team of people tasked with reviewing applications for content to be removed. According to Drummond, most of these come with very little information and “almost no context”. So Google, who shouldn’t be forced to make such judgments to begin with, has to make judgments about censorship with very little to go on. Like I said, I wouldn’t want to be in that position.

Drummond writes, “The examples we’ve seen so far highlight the difficult value judgments search engines and European society now face: former politicians wanting posts removed that criticise their policies in office; serious, violent criminals asking for articles about their crimes to be deleted; bad reviews for professionals like architects and teachers; comments that people have written themselves (and now regret). In each case someone wants the information hidden, while others might argue that it should be out in the open.”

“When it comes to determining what’s in the public interest, we’re taking into account a number of factors,” he adds. “These include whether the information relates to a politician, celebrity or other public figure; if the material comes from a reputable news source, and how recent it is; whether it involves political speech; questions of professional conduct that might be relevant to consumers; the involvement of criminal convictions that are not yet ‘spent’; and if the information is being published by a government. But these will always be difficult and debatable judgments.”

He says Google is doing its best to be transparent about removals. As you may know, Google is showing the following statement on some search results pages in the EU:

Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more.

Google says it will also include the requests in its transparency report, and will continue to notify publishers and webmasters when their pages have been pulled from results, but as Drummond notes, it can’t include specific information about why such pages were removed because it would violate the privacy rights of the individual in question. That’s part of the court’s ruling.

“Of course, only two months in our process is still very much a work in progress,” says Drummond. “It’s why we incorrectly removed links to some articles last week (they’ve since been reinstated). But the good news is that the ongoing, active debate that’s happening will inform the development of our principles, policies and practices – in particular about how to balance one person’s right to privacy with another’s right to know.”

That’s a semi-optimistic view, but you have to wonder how frequently Google will continue to “incorrectly remove” links. Google, as of Drummond’s writing has had over 70,000 take-down requests spanning 250,000 web pages just since May. We can only assume that they’ll continue to pour in for the foreseeable future.

The company has set up an “advisory council of experts,” from outside of Google to advise Google on the issues at hand. These individuals come from the media, academia, data protection, civil society, and the tech sector, and are asking for evidence and recommendations from various groups, while holding public meetings across Europe to “examine these issues more deeply.”

The experts will make a report available to the public, and it will include recommendations for “particularly difficult” removal requests like criminal convictions, as well as thoughts on the implications of the ruling for users, publishers, search engines, etc. It will also contain steps to improve accountability and transparency, according to Google.

“The issues at stake here are important and difficult, but we’re committed to complying with the court’s decision,” Drummond concludes. “Indeed, it’s hard not to empathise with some of the requests that we’ve seen – from the man who asked that we do not show a news article saying that he had been questioned in connection with a crime (he’s able to demonstrate that he was never charged) to the mother who requested that we remove news articles for her daughter’s name as she had been the victim of abuse. t’s a complex issue, with no easy answers. So a robust debate is both welcome and necessary as, on this issue at least, no search engine has an instant or perfect answer.”

Google has been much quicker than its search engine peers to comply with the court’s ruling, but has also been criticized for just that.

Do you think Google jumped into this too quickly, or should it have taken its time like Yahoo and Bing? Should the whole thing be handled differently? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image via Google

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