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Google Pulls a Vanishing Act in Europe


Company responds to court ruling by creating a big ugly mess -- possibly on purpose.

There was a football referee for a Scottish team who was forced to resign for lying about his reasons for granting a penalty. Then, there was a solicitor who was accused of fraud. Also, an airline accused of racism by a Muslim job applicant, and the CEO of a major bank who was reportedly fired for permitting reckless investing practices on his watch.
The publishers of stories about all of the above just got emails from Google that start: "We regret to inform you..."
The results of a Google search that includes the names of certain people mentioned in any of the above incidents will now omit links to stories about these events. ("Certain people" meaning that it might not be the principle subject, but someone else, even someone mentioned in a comment below the story.) But the omission is made only in Internet domains for countries within the European Union.
That's four cases down and, oh, about 70,000 to go in Google's plan for compliance with a ruling in May by the European Court of Justice that Google must respond to requests from people who think their faux pas should have an expiration date, even in the Internet age.

These individuals have, the court ruled, the "right to be forgotten."
When the highest court in Europe hands down a decision, all a company can do is suppress a collective sigh and get to work. Which is what Google has done.
Google promptly put up a Web form inviting individuals to submit requests to tweak its search engine. It assigned an army of paralegals and other unfortunates to review the requests one by one. They are supposed to decide whether the report is inadequate, no longer relevant, or excessive.

If it is any of those things, the offending Web page is dropped.
So far, the company has gotten about 70,000 requests from Europeans eager to bury tales of their personal pratfalls, along with miscellaneous other inconvenient truths, unflattering images, and personal insults.
They resolved the first few, including those mentioned above.  And now, the "right to be forgotten" has smacked up against the "right to be informed," as any reasonable person who thought it through realized it would.
Deliberate or not, Google's response has been both a big ugly mess and an awesome public relations move.  It has created a blizzard of media coverage of its specific decisions, highlighting all the dangers of messing with the facts. It has reinforced Google's position as the preeminent website on the planet.  Because, like it or not, Google's decisions effectively determine whether a "fact" survives or vanishes.
But most of all, Google's efforts at complying with the court order have made it clear that the task is just plain impossible, and never should have been attempted in the first place.
Google did have a choice, of sorts. It could simply have announced that it would obey every court ruling it received that affirmed an individual's "right to be forgotten." Then, Google could have sat back and waited as court cases staggered through Europe's court system.
Instead, the company proactively took responsibility upon itself, and dramatized the problem with a short sharp shock of emails to publishers.
In the UK, The Guardian, the BBC, and The Daily Mail were among the first to be notified that their published pages had been vanished.
How happy do you think British journalists are about the thought of a bunch of people in California setting the standards for which of their stories European readers may see?
The Guardian was eloquent on the subject: "Editorial calls surely belong with publishers, not Google," a columnist wrote.
Fair enough. Except that's not what the court said.
Remember, Google is not removing a single page from the Web. It isn't even eliminating the possibility of finding it, even via a Google search. It is required only to omit the offending pages from its results, if the search phrase contains the person's name.
Moreover, the display is tweaked only on European Union domains. The story can still be found by using the offending search query on the /us domain.  Or on the publisher's site, or from a link embedded in a blog.
Furthermore, the court order does not target Google alone. It applies to all search engines. Google alone is the focus of the issue because it handles more than 90% of search queries for Europeans.
For now, the tizzy has had the ironic effect of bringing the vanished story back into prominence, as the newspapers cheerfully link to it within their stories about how it vanished, and the stories get picked up by bloggers, and on and on.
Google presumably can hope that the European court sees the error of its ways and amends its ruling.
If not, The Guardian foresees trouble ahead. It quite rightly raises the specter of rich and powerful people routinely scrubbing their public images, probably with the aid of expensive "reputation management" firms.
Luckily, those firms will probably have about as great a success rate as Google has in making a fact disappear from the Web.
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