Sunday 23 November 2014

Google's mighty mess-up on 'right to be forgotten'

Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30

Google
Google

Two weeks ago, a four-line message popped up in a small corner of this newspaper's web logs.

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

It then showed us the article link that had been removed by the search engine. It was about a University of Limerick lecturer who assaulted a student and subsequently paid him €100,000 in compensation. The lecturer later pleaded guilty to assault in Limerick Criminal Court.

This article, published in 2010, remained live on our web servers. It was entirely truthful and accurate. There was no challenge to its legal legitimacy from any source.

However, Google granted someone's application to have it removed from its search results because it was "irrelevant, outdated, inadequate or excessive".

Really? A criminal court case, with a conviction, that happened just a few years ago? The article remained hidden for about a week until Google reinstated the link following a protest from this company.

In case you're missing the context here, this was the first Irish take-down (that I am aware of) to occur under a new European privacy law that strives to give citizens the 'right to be forgotten' online. The law was fine-tuned by a European Court of Justice ruling in May.

Since that judgment, search engines such as Google have been obliged to delete "irrelevant or excessive" search results based on a person's name, where the person applies for such a remedy.

Where results link to articles such as ours, these are allowed to remain legally published. But Google is simply not allowed to link to them based on certain searches.

By any measure, it's a very odd rationale.

But even those who support the new law agree that Google is supposed to make exceptions for cases of "public interest".

In this context, the search giant says that it has "a team of people reviewing each application individually".

Really? Did this team of people decide that redacting links to an article reporting a criminal conviction was consistent with an individual's right to privacy and 'right to be forgotten'?

Either Google is deliberately letting egregious errors through to try and bait journalists and freedom of expression activists into protesting or its system at vetting 'right to be forgotten' applications is awfully flawed.

Last week, David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, outlined how the company is trying to come to grips with the European Court Of Justice's May ruling.

"The examples we've seen so far highlight the difficult value judgments search engines and European society now face," he wrote. "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."

Drummond went on to give an insight into how Google is approaching the 1,000 requests per day it is now receiving for the removal of search result links.

"When it comes to determining what's in the public interest, we're taking into account a number of factors," he said.

"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."

Even a cursory glance at the assault article Google has acquiesced in hiding from the public would show that all of these criteria should have protected an article reporting on an assault conviction.

The company says that it is not allowed to reveal anything about the process leading to an article's delinking, as to do so would frustrate the privacy law it is attempting to enforce. That seems sensible. But there is no clear appeal process to search result redactions.

So this assault case remained hidden from view when searching for one of the principals' names.

That means that whoever chanced their arm putting in a 'right to be forgotten' take-down request in this instance has taught white collar reputation management professionals a valuable lesson: go ahead and try it. Google may well delete any link to your client's corporate indiscretion. Hell, it may even redact links to a criminal conviction.

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