Who put Google in charge of deciding ‘public interest’ in what Irish news articles should be banned from its search engine results?
Er, we did.
Last week, we learned the extent to which the family of the businessman Sean Quinn used the ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ privacy law to get Google to take down dozens of articles about certain business and legal affairs.
These were serious, well-researched articles that included references to misconduct, controversial financial arrangements and even criminal matters (a three-month prison sentence for Quinn’s nephew, Peter Darragh Quinn, for contempt of court).
Irish people, who now permanently pay a 2pc insurance levy because of Sean Quinn’s financial mismanagement, are entitled to ask: how can Google say that these articles are no longer in the public interest and should be delisted because the Quinn family say they want ‘privacy’?
The answer is simple. We signed up to this system across Europe almost a decade ago.
So while we may be dismayed that our legitimate news journalism – including court reporting – is being censored by a search engine monopoly, we shouldn’t say we’re surprised.
There was always going to be tension between business people trying to scrub their past records from the internet and a reasonable right to privacy from being reputationally stuck by years-ago actions.
In decreeing that Google users should no longer see some links to articles that show how Sean Quinn and his family treated the financial system here, the search engine monopoly agreed with the Quinns that their privacy trumps our right to know.
And that’s the system.
There is scant appeal to Google, limited to a web-form follow-up. In general, the news organisations which published the articles (many of which were strictly-regulated court reports) barely get to make a case about why the articles remain in the public interest. Nor does anyone else.
Instead, a handful of functionaries in Google now decide what we should or shouldn’t know about the Quinns’ past deeds.
Just as they do with other important news articles published, extending to serious criminal misdeeds.
It’s no good screaming about it. This is literally what we said we wanted: a private, unaccountable big tech company to decide which news articles we should be granted access to or not, using only broad European Court guidelines.
Should the Data Protection Commissioner be mitigating on this? Sorry, wrong regulator. Even if she had the power to step in on behalf of public interest journalism, that’s not her remit. If anything, she has the opposite brief – to maximise privacy, even at the expense of free speech. (That is, in fact, what the DPC is doing in several Right To Be Forgotten cases with Google; pushing recommendations to Google to delist even more news articles. The watchdog told this newspaper that it doesn’t inform or deal with the news publisher on any of these requests as it doesn’t have to.)
So is there anyone to step in and push back in cases where Google might get it wrong about restricting our access to news?
Instead, there’s a makeshift, last-gasp defence of Streisand Effect creation going on. In other words, when newspapers find out that their articles are being delisted from Google, they’re publishing new articles with essentially the same detail and the same named individuals, so that those articles will automatically be indexed by Google again. This is what happened last week with several of the Quinn family articles.
Both the Irish Independent and the Irish Times published summaries of the original news stories, together with links to the original pieces.
(Obviously, a fresh RTBF application by the individual concerning these news articles would probably be successful and it’s likely that the newspaper would just lose interest in the tit-for-tat process.)
Just to be completely clear, the ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ process doesn’t actually wipe the articles from the internet: they’re still published on Independent.ie, IrishTimes.com, RTE.ie or wherever. But it may as well be deleting these articles from the web. Google owns well over 90pc of internet searches in Ireland. If it decides not to list something, it effectively can’t be found by the vast majority of people (who assume that Google links to everything important and relevant). Think about this – if you’re looking something, or someone, up, how much further afield than Google do you ever go?
What about users of Bing, Duck Duck Go and other alternative search engines? Well, yes – it’s possible that searches on those engines might turn up the Google-delisted articles. But almost no-one uses those search engines. Even if they did, someone requesting delisting from Google is also likely to request it from Bing under the exact same privacy law.
I’ve spoken to some within Google about this issue. They say they’re reluctant arbiters in the whole thing. They never asked to be given this responsibility and they dislike having to be, by their American standards, news censors.
They admit that there’s little or no accountability to the whole process, but believe that this isn’t Google’s fault. They’re literally following the law as it was set up and enacted.
If anything, Google does make some attempt at exercising judgment. Its figures, published in its online transparency report, show that the tech giant turns down most RTBF applications (although only marginally, at 55pc).
It does this even though it could probably just agree to all requests from all businessmen – seeking to cleanse their online reputations from their misdeeds – with relatively little legal comeback.
So don’t blame Google. We wanted this system. And now we have it.