providing an uncharacteristically ill-prepared and opaque response
to the EU’s right to be forgotten. Why is its dedication to
transparency so curiously absent now, when it has to implement a
law it never wanted?
Google lays its reputation on transparency.
It publishes reports for just this reason every year — reports
on government requests to remove content, copyright owners’
takedown requests and specific requests made about users and their
data by government. So, all the bad guys.
It also publicly reprimands said bad guys for their contrasting
total lack of transparency. Google’s own Transparency
Report page is littered with press releases on requests made
under US surveillance laws. “Government removal requests continue
to rise” headlines exclaim, in between reports on the search
giant’s part in petitioning the government for more transparency and
declarations on its own progress entitled “Making the web a safer
Google is our hero.
That is what this all tells us. It battles on behalf of the
embattled. It’s our data-driven Robin Hood, scooping up the world’s
information and dispersing the titbits King John doesn’t want us to
know, for fear of a looming uprising.
Why then, is the search engine seemingly so utterly unprepared
(or unwilling) to implement the EU’s right to be forgotten policy,
and implement it in a transparent way? After all, it is a key
element of the EU Data Protection Directive that has been publicly
debated and pending for years, but always nearing a reality.
It duly rolled out a simplistic-looking form, on schedule, for
the public to send in their requests. Then it leaked details to the Financial Times on those requests that were fit
for scaremongering about the adverse effects of the law’s
implementation — 31 percent from the UK and Ireland related to
frauds or scams; 20 percent to arrests or convictions for violent
or serious crimes; 12 percent to child pornography arrests; five
percent to the government and police; and two percent related to
celebrities. Many of these requests, would therefore come under the
bracket of things-Google-will-refuse-to-forget, including
“professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct
of government officials”.
Nevertheless, we are seeing an odd translation of the right to
be forgotten unfold, with ever more allegations of misuse being
published as I type.
Most prolific has been the BBC’s Robert
Peston’s 2007 blog on Stan O’Neal, the former boss of the
investment bank Merrill Lynch. In it, Peston described how O’Neal
was pushed out of the company after losses and “reckless
investments”. It was an opinion piece (something staunchly
protected under freedom of expression laws, unless some serious
misinformation is delivered) and it was factual. For these reasons,
Peston is at a loss as to why search results for it were taken
down. Either a public figure with much weight behind him had argued
for its takedown or, he speculates, something in the comments
section may be at fault. Either way, there is no explanation from
Google. And right now, there is no appeals process to speak
Over at the Guardian, several articles have
disappeared from Google’s European search results relating,
bizarrely, to a piece on French officers making post-it art and one
on a Scottish Premier League referee lying about his reasons for
granting a penalty. These are all things that happened. And things
that happened publicly. They were not perpetrated by under-18s that
now want a reasonable right to privacy. It is hard to see why these
articles were removed from the search results, and with Google
staying quiet, we are left to wonder.
With transparency one of Google’s own moral pillars, why is
this? And why is there no satisfactory appeals procedure and no
explanation afforded to individuals. For its part, Google puts a
warning on the webpage saying an entry is missing. This, it says,
is for the sake of transparency.
In its requests for comment over the past few weeks, Google
routinely tells us that this is a “new” process, that it’s still
working on it and that things will evolve. “We have recently
started taking action on the removals requests we’ve received after
the European Court of Justice decision. This is a new and evolving
process for us. We’ll continue to listen to feedback and will also
work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with
the ruling,” a Google spokeswoman told us today.
When has Google ever seemed like a “let’s just wait and see”
type of a company? Why has it not been plugging its resources into
excelling at this, as it does everything else? The right to be
forgotten has been pending for a very long time, and there was
every chance it would get the go ahead in the EU.
Google could have had a system in place if it chose to. Yes,
that would have been a big chunk of time and investment. But the
chance that Google would take down information that should not be
taken down, because it launched the service underprepared, is
surely a greater risk to the company’s reputation? How have we
arrived at in this unfamiliar place, one where Google appears
horribly unprepared and totally and uncharacteristically in awe of
this new challenge?
Privacy advocates, along with pretty much anyone who understands
how the internet works, were rightly concerned that this facet of
the EU law could do much harm to Google’s infamous ethos, Do No
Evil (already under weighty strain following the NSA/GCHQ
The interpretation of the EU Data Protection Directive — the
end result of one (now infamous) Mario Costeja Gonzalez’s attempts
to scrub clean a 1998 Google search result on his past financial
struggles — is designed to protect EU citizens from their own
digital footprint. But only in certain cases.
These include, when information online is: “inadequate,
irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the
purposes for which they were processed.” It is closely entwined
with EU privacy law, which is far more stringent here than in the
US, in ways Google apparently cannot fathom. The European Court of
Justice specifically ruled that removals should be based on the
fair balance concept, whereby the right to information among the
public, and the individual’s right to privacy. This, it said,
depends on: “specific cases, on the nature of the information in
question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life
and on the interest of the public in having that information, an
interest which may vary, in particular, according to the role
played by the data subject in public life.”
Of course, this was always going to be a big ask of Google. It
is why the search engine continually fought against the case, among
many numerous reasons — not least of which, it did not want to be
put in the position of internet censor extraordinaire.
But that is exactly what has happened. And Google appears to be
curiously allowing this to unfold. It has sent notices to the likes
of the Guardian and the BBC, presumably for sake of
transparency. However, it will have known that these journalistic
institutions would leap on the facts and write about them. The
stories are everywhere. We are all questioning the implementation
of the right to be forgotten, the threat of censorship and, more
troubling, the threat that public figures are already succeeding in
using it to quash information they would rather we didn’t know.
They have a new route open to achieve this, since the articles are
factual and not libellous in any way.
What I can’t get around, is Google’s “gosh this is a lot of
work” repsonses to requests for more information. “This is a new
process for us. Each request has to be assessed individually and
we’re working as quickly as possible to get through the queue,” a
spokesman said. Yet is certainly has the capacity to keep us better
informed than it is right now. As shown by the data given to the FT in May. When right to be forgotten stats
related to “thousands” of requests, or sex offenders trying to
disappear from the internet, Google appeared to be equipped to
swiftly gather those numbers in handy graphs for publication. Why
has this level of efficiency and transparency not persisted?
The only reason I can think of, is because Google is not Robin
Hood and has not been for a long time. Google is King John’s far
more charming younger cousin, harnessing a hoard of data his
adoring fans donate willingly. Because it’s for their own good.
Okay, so Google is not an evil villain; King John still takes the
cake. But it’s easy to lose track of the very simple truth that it
is not a fun-loving Silicon Valley startup, but a giant corporation
with incredible resources and power, and its own agenda. Why has it
not chosen to divert just a smidgen of those resouces to prepare
for the impending implementation of this integral facet of EU
This is the first time Google has dealt with very public
requests for potentially controversial data to be removed from its
search results, and not leapt to publish a report and press
release. It will not give an explanation other than the
aforementioned facts on balancing rights and looking out for
inappropriate requests by scammers and politicians. The company told BBC’s
Peston it has “an army of paralegals”, but won’t divulge how
the system functions beyond repeating back excerpts of EU law.
It feels, awkwardly, like Google could be doing this with
purpose. It did not want the law to be upheld in this fashion, it
fought it every step of the way, and its dutiful
“we’re-working-as-hard-as-we-can” statements sound flaccid coming
form a company with such great power.
Hopefully, this is not the case. The search giant has every
right to be concerned about censorship, as many of us are, and it
does not feel right to lay this responsibility on its shoulders.
Equally, the impact of the law is truly questionable when we can so
easily use another search engine, or Google.com to easily find the
hidden entries. But the right to be forgotten was always going to
be littered with these issues. And surely such a powerful entity,
with its seemingly limitless resources, is in fact just the right
company to be leading the way. The courts have ruled and the issue
is here, so we would hope Google would be doing everything it can
to make it work for its customers as well as itself.
Otherwise, you never know, the unthinkable might happen. Horror
of horrors, perhaps we won’t all be googling anymore.