Is Google Search Result Removal Going Too Far?

Of course it is, and of course it will continue to do so. Do you think Google removing results at people’s request is problematic? Share your thoughts in the comments. You probably know the stor...
Is Google Search Result Removal Going Too Far?
Written by Chris Crum

Of course it is, and of course it will continue to do so.

Do you think Google removing results at people’s request is problematic? Share your thoughts in the comments.

You probably know the story by now. In May, the Court of of Justice of the European Union ruled that Google and other search engines must take requests from people for search results to be removed. Google has vocally opposed this for a long time, considering it a form of censorship, but ultimately, its hands became tied, and the process is now in effect in the EU.

Predictably, the results are already controversial, as the press is being censored.

Google was already getting thousands of requests before it even had a request tool. Once the tool became available, it got over 12,000 removal requests in the first day alone. From there it continued to average about 10,000 per day.

Last week, Google started actually removing results, honoring requests. It now includes a general statement on many search results pages in the EU, including those that didn’t necessarily bring up results related to requests. It says:

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

This is presumably Google’s way of keeping things as vague as possible, so what’s actually being censored isn’t so obvious.

This week, webmasters and publishers started getting notices from Google when their content has been removed from search results. Google is issuing notices through Webmaster Tools.

Alex Graves at David Naylor wrote:

Arriving into the office this morning we have seen as many as five instances across a number of clients that have received messages through the Webmaster Tools platform, informing them of specific URLs that Google are “no longer able to show”, pointing out that rather than a full removal the pages will be simply omitted from “certain searches on European versions of Google”.

URLs that are affected within the notifications seem to vary, the majority seeming to be profile related content while others seem to be focused towards user uploaded content.

Barry Schwartz from RustyBrick also reported seeing some notices. They say:

Notice of removal from Google Search

We regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google…

The message then list the specific URLs that were affected.

This could quickly get out of hand as more and more requests are submitted. In fact, some would say it’s already gotten out of hand. High profile publishers including the BBC, The Guardian, and The Daily Mail are seeing their content removed from search results.

BBC economics editor Robert Peston writes about a post of his that was removed from searches involving former Merrill Lynch boss Stan O’Neal. The post, as he says, deals with how O’Neal was forced out after the bank suffered big losses on “reckless investments”.

“Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record – especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory (Merrill went to the brink of collapse the following year, and was rescued by Bank of America),” says Peston. “So there is an argument that in removing the blog, Google is confirming the fears of many in the industry that the “right to be forgotten” will be abused to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest.”

The Guardian was notified of six removed articles including three about retired Scottish Premier League referee Dougie McDonald, who was reportedly found to have lied about his reasons for granting a penalty. Also included was another was about French office workers making post-it-art, and one about a solicitor facing a fraud trial.

As The Guardian’s James Ball notes, the publication wasn’t given any reason for the articles’ deletion.

The Daily Mail says it had a story about the Merrill Lynch banker and one about the referee were removed from search results as well.

And this is only just beginning.

Now, stories about Google removing results about these people are scattered throughout the results for searches on their names, pretty much as expected.

Like John Oliver said in his brilliant segment about the Court’s ruling, and the particular case it was based on, “The only thing I know about him is the only thing he didn’t want me to know.”

According to Peston, Google has hired “an army of para legal” to process “right to be forgotten” requests, and had already received 50,000 requests for articles to be removed from European searches by the time he posted his article.

Google doesn’t have to comply with all requests, and can choose to fight them in court if it wants. Removing results and issuing a blanket disclaimer is likely to be a more cost effective solution for the company, however. With its disclaimer, and explanation of why results have been removed, it can still look like the good guy in all of this, and in reality in this particular case, Google is the good guy.

Remember, Google didn’t want to do this, but is being forced to. It will be interesting to see if it’s eventually forced to do so in other parts of the world.

Also, Bing and Yahoo are working on their versions of the request tool. This is not just a Google thing.

Google says it will include the requests in its transparency report.

What do you think? Is this “right to be forgotten” thing going too far? Is this going to do real damage to the nature of information retrieval online? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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