It's 2014 and do we really need to be reminded that, when you seek to censor something by demanding that it be removed from view, it's really only going to generate that much more attention to the original? I believe there's even a term for that sort of thing
. As you may have heard, thanks to a ridiculous ruling
in the EU Court of Justice, Google is being forced to start removing links to content, based on submissions by people who wish their past embarrassments would just disappear down the memory hole. The company received tens of thousands of requests for removals based on the new ruling, and last week began removing
such links from its index, following a review by the new team the company had to put together to review these requests.
It appears that, as part of its transparency efforts, Google is also telling the websites who are being delinked that they are being delinked over this, because both the BBC and the Guardian have stories up today about how they've had stories removed from Google thanks to the "right to be forgotten" efforts. And, guess what? Both articles dig into what original articles have been removed, making it fairly easy to determine just who was so embarrassed and is now seeking to have that embarrassing past deleted. And, of course, by asking for the content to be removed, these brilliant individuals with embarrassing histories have made both the removal attempt and
the original story newsworthy all over again
First up, is the BBC, which received a notice about
one of its articles being removed from search. That article is all about Merrill Lynch chairman Stan O'Neal losing his job
. In fact, the only person named in the article is... Stan O'Neal. Take a wild guess what thin-skinned former top executive to a major US financial firm must have issued a "please forget me" request to Google? The BBC's Robert Preston -- author of both articles -- questions why this should be forgotten:
My column describes how O'Neal was forced out of Merrill after the investment bank suffered colossal losses on reckless investments it had made.
Is the data in it "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant"?
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).
In other words, welcome to the new world in Europe, where all sorts of important, truthful and relevant information gets deleted.
Over at the Guardian, they've found out that six articles from their website have been memory-holed by Google
. And again, it quickly becomes clear who's involved:
Three of the articles, dating from 2010, relate to a now-retired Scottish Premier League referee, Dougie McDonald, who was found to have lied about his reasons for granting a penalty in a Celtic v Dundee United match, the backlash to which prompted his resignation.
The Guardian does searches for McDonald on both the US and UK versions of Google and finds that McDonald's lie is wiped from history over in the UK, while we Americans can still find it, no problem.
The other disappeared articles – the Guardian isn't given any reason for the deletions – are a 2011 piece on French office workers making post-it art, a 2002 piece about a solicitor facing a fraud trial standing for a seat on the Law Society's ruling body and an index of an entire week of pieces by Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade.
It's pretty likely that Paul Baxendale-Walker is the person complaining about that second article, since he's the main subject of that article. The other two... are not clear at all. The Post-It wars story names three individuals: Julien Berissi, Stephane Heude and Emilie Cozette. But none of them are portrayed in any way that would seem negative. It just shows them having some fun by making giant post-it artwork. And the other one is just weird because it's not an actual story, but an index page showing a week of story headlines and opening blurbs -- but apparently whichever article in the list caused the request wasn't directly included itself -- suggesting whoever sent in the request did a pretty bad job of figuring out what to censor.
Either way, both the Guardian and the BBC point out how ridiculous this is. Preston, at the BBC, says this is "confirming the fears of many in the industry" that this will be used "to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest." Meanwhile, James Ball at the Guardian, notes how troubling this is, and starts to think of ways to deal with it, including highlighting every "deleted" article:
But this isn't enough. The Guardian, like the rest of the media, regularly writes about things people have done which might not be illegal but raise serious political, moral or ethical questions – tax avoidance, for example. These should not be allowed to disappear: to do so is a huge, if indirect, challenge to press freedom. The ruling has created a stopwatch on free expression – our journalism can be found only until someone asks for it to be hidden.
Publishers can and should do more to fight back. One route may be legal action. Others may be looking for search tools and engines outside the EU. Quicker than that is a direct innovation: how about any time a news outlet gets a notification, it tweets a link to the article that's just been disappeared. Would you follow @GdnVanished?
Preston has asked Google how the BBC can appeal, while Ball says the Guardian doesn't believe there's any official appeals process. Either way, it's safe to say that (1) this process is a mess and leading to the censorship of legitimate content and (2) people like Stan O'Neal and Dougie McDonald who thought that they could hide their embarrassing pasts under this ruling may not end up being very happy in the long term.