Bringing it all back

Google can’t seem to decide whether to forget things or not

July 4, 2014
July 4, 2014

It’s all coming back to Google now. The search giant is re-instating links to news articles that it removed from its search results on July 2. That’s bringing even greater scrutiny on why the company decided to take them down in the first place.

In theory, the company was responding to a recent ruling (pdf) by the European Court of Justice that it must abide by European data protection laws (the “right to be forgotten”). Among the articles it removed was a piece about a Scottish soccer referee on the Guardian and Telegraph websites. It has not yet restored links to a 2007 article on the BBC’s website about a Merrill Lynch banker’s reckless investments. According to the court’s ruling, people may request that web pages about them be taken out of search results, but Google has to comply only if the material is not in the public interest, and is irrelevant, outdated or inadequate. None of these applied to the BBC article.

Moreover, lawyers told the Register, respecting the “right to be forgotten” isn’t Google’s only legal requirement; it must balance that against freedom of information. That Google agreed to remove links that were in the public interest, and is now reinstating them, shows it misinterpreted the law, they say. Quartz has requested comment from Google; it previously said that “This is a new and evolving process for us.”

At the heart of the debate is how much Google should have to shoulder the burden of enforcing European laws. For now, it is up to Google to decide whether a particular link is indeed worth removing. Those who worry about creeping censorship believe it should not be the arbiter. Such cases are far less clear-cut than copyright infringement—another case in which Google may be asked to take down links—because complainants can either prove they own the copyright, or they cannot. Google can decline individual requests to remove results and let applicants go to their local data protection commissioner; but it cannot simply relegate them all.

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