Blink and you’ll still see it. Google’s strategy to spin the European Court of Justice’s right to be forgotten ruling as ‘unworkable’ is in full swing.
The ruling, made in late May, requires Google to process requests by private individuals to de-index outdated or irrelevant personal information when a search is made for their name.
The data is only de-indexed from European Google search results, not Google.com. And refers specifically to private individuals — those with a public profile would be exempt on the grounds of public interest. Google says it’s had about 70,000 requests for data to be de-indexed so far.
Google started de-indexing links at the end of last month to comply with the law. But this week it’s clear that the advertising giant is outsourcing a public campaign of ‘censorship outrage’ to the media organizations whose business models entirely align with its own.
Earlier this week BBC journalist Robert Peston published an emotionally charged blog post entitled Why has Google cast me into oblivion?, which questioned “why has Google killed this example of my journalism?”.
Provocative language, no?
This alarmist reaction was of course inevitable.
Google has barely had to lift a finger to find a sympathetic mouthpiece from media outlets that also rely on people finding information on their sites to drive their own digital businesses.
Still, there is evidently more than a little behind the scenes string-pulling going on. For starters Google has been emailing news websites to flag up when it’s removed a link to their content in its search results — to give them the required nudge to get to work on a piece attacking the ruling as censorship. (Google declined to specify how many notification emails it has sent out when I asked.)
There doesn’t appear to be a legal requirement in the ruling that Google informs publishers it’s de-indexing a particular search. And Google has previously made no bones about making big changes to its search ranking algorithm that affect all sorts of sites without giving them the individual courtesy of dropping an email to flag up the change.
But it’s one thing Google pulling the levers of its own business for its own economic interests. The right to be forgotten ruling is a change thrown on an unwilling Mountain View by European judges and legislators that forces it in a pro-privacy direction that does not align with its ad-driven, individual data-harvesting business model — so it’s not going gently into this goodnight. Oh no.
So far Google’s spin strategy has been spectacularly successful. By publishing stories about the removed links, the media is neatly turning a right to be forgotten on its head — shining the spotlight back on private individuals who may have been seeking to de-emphasize outdated or irrelevant information about them.
This week the ruling has become digital theatre, and Google gets to laugh at the European data privacy farce it has so easily been able to engineer.
As Andrew Orlowski points out in The Register, Mountain View could just bounce requests from individuals to national data protection watchdogs in the EU — and appeal each decision if the watchdog sided with the requester. But that process would be time-consuming.
Much quicker for the company to generate a big spike of negative PR about ‘what an unworkable mess’ the law is by making what appear to be ham-fisted decisions in cases where there is some public interest angle that can be used to fuel accusations of censorship.
Of course I am not party to Google’s decision-making in individual de-indexing cases, but the results so far speak for themselves. (And the company has consistently declined to comment in detail on its specific decision-making process.)
Writing about the six de-indexed Guardian articles (some of which have presumably now been restored) the newspaper’s James Ball dubbed the ruling a “challenge to press freedom” and argued it “has created a stopwatch on free expression”.
After Google reversed some of those de-indexing decisions, a Guardian spokeswoman told Reuters: “Their current approach appears to be an overly broad interpretation. If the purpose of the judgment is not to enable censorship of publishers by the back door, then we’d encourage Google to be transparent about the criteria it is using to make these decisions, and how publishers can challenge them.”
‘Overly broad interpretation’ nails Google’s strategy here, in my view. Pay out enough rope, and let the public hanging commence.
Google will only say its process is “evolving” at this stage. Which is a neat way to side-step any criticism for bad and/or intentionally manipulative decisions that forward its agenda of trying to get the law overturned.
When I asked Google for comment it provided the same statement it’s trotted out previously this week — namely: “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.”
The Peston instance is a great example of how negative, fear-mongering PR about the ‘censorship’ of important public information has been manufactured by the way Google has responded to the ruling.
Peston’s post identified a 2007 blog as the target for de-indexing. The post was apparently about Stan O’Neal, the former boss of the investment bank Merrill Lynch, being forced out after the bank suffered what Peston described as “colossal losses on reckless investments it had made”.
Now investment bankers rival journalists for the public’s most hated individuals in these post-financial crisis times — so enter stage right a perfect pantomime villain to tread the boards on Google’s behalf drawing angry boo-hiiiissssses in the direction of the right to be forgotten ruling. Who’s going to support a law that looks like it’s helping bankers whitewash past acts?
The problem is, it wasn’t actually O’Neal who requested the removal of the Peston blog post. And the post is not actually removed when you search for O’Neal’s name, so there’s no ‘bankerwashing’ going on there.
Peston has since updated his story to note this fact. His update states that the article’s de-indexing was in fact requested by an individual who had left a comment on the original post. And that a search for O’Neal’s name still brings up Peston’s post. So, in other words, the article is only de-indexed if you’re searching for the unknown name of an individual commenter…
Talk about misdirection.
Of course it’s also true that the broad-brush nature of the ruling has enabled Google to put on this digital pantomime and spin the impact of the ruling to emphasis risks to media freedoms and mobilize news outlets to lobby public opinion on its behalf. So there’s perhaps an argument to say that the court could be more specific in setting parameters for how it expects Google to weigh requests.
What’s clear is that this week’s Google farce is de-emphasising exactly the people the ruling aims to protect: private (not public) individuals who have outdated and irrelevant information appended to a search for their name that might in fact be making it harder for them to move their lives on from some past event; or find a new job after being made redundant; or avoid having their digital footprint bundled up with the reputation of someone or something else; or whose private home address has been published online without their permission.
The right to a private life of average individuals is exactly the thing Google wants you to forget.
Early data put out by Forget.me, a service set up to help people who want to submit right to be forgotten requests, on the kinds of reasons people have for asking Google to remove a link in a search result suggests privacy is a key motivator for those wanting something about them to be de-indexed.
‘Invasion of privacy’ and ‘defamation & insult’ were the two categories that made up nearly half of the requests people were submitting via its service. The top three privacy-related reasons were: disclosure of home address; negative opinions; and redundancy. The top defamation reason was ‘extraneous matters’ — aka people whose name has been erroneously attached to matters that are completely extraneous to them.
For the media to rush to brand this complex privacy ruling — which seeks to give some protection to private individuals — as ‘unfettered censorship’ is irresponsible but unsurprising.
There are huge and growing complexities attached to massive data retention impinging on the rights of private individuals. So let’s not pretend this stuff is simplistic. Especially when a self-interested entity is behind the scenes pulling the strings.