It is less than two months since Google implemented its search removal feature in response to the “right to be forgotten” ruling by the European court, and since then they have removed dozens of search results from the indexes of European search engine users.
The ruling states that users can request the removal of search results if they are out of date or no longer relevant to the person in question. For example, if a user has a conviction for a minor crime which would count as “spent” under the law of his country, or if they had an unpaid debt from a decade ago, then that result could be removed. So, too, could a result relating to a negative review if the service being reviewed could reasonably be expected to have changed significantly in recent years.
On the surface, the right to be forgotten sounds like a good concept. If you are the person that has the negative reviews then it is easy to understand why you would want to remove some of those reviews; especially if they are harming your reputation. However, if you are doing a background check on someone, wouldn’t you want to know what their history is like?
Walking a Fine Line
The European Court’s reasoning makes sense. In the past, a minor transgression would perhaps get covered in a newspaper, and people would remember it for a while, but when some bigger news comes along and that old news would be forgotten. People and brands had the opportunity to turn over a new leaf and to repair their reputations.
Several organizations, including the Wikimedia Foundation, have spoken out against the ruling, expressing fear that it is a step towards censorship in Europe. Google has approved more than half of the requests for link removal that have come its way so far. The search giant says that it is carefully considering each request on a case-by-case basis, but as so many requests are coming through it is easy to imagine that they may be letting some questionable requests slip through the net.
The Wikimedia foundation is keeping a list of links to its own articles on Wikipedia which it has received removal notices for. This list could, in its own right, be against the law, and could create a situation where a page about censorship ends up being censored in the SERPs.
Should We All Have Equal Access to Information?
Under the current version of the law, links are removed only from the local European database. This creates an unusual situation where a tech savvy user who searches on the US version of Google will receive more complete search results than a user that heads to their own localized version of the search engine. While the purpose of this censorship may be different to the censorship happening in other parts of the world, the end result is the same. Europeans do not have access to the same quality of information as people in Australia, Canada or the USA. Brand owners and SEO companies in the UK may like to control the search results, but Wikimedia and others are questioning whether that is how the web should be.