17th October 2014

Why Google keeps reminding us about the EU's Right to be Forgotten ruling

They've been described as a threat to authority, a promoter of indecency, too violent, and utterly offensive. Over the past 12 years this series of books has been challenged and frequently banned in public libraries and schools across the United States; and each year since 2012 these books have received more complaints, and bans than any other pieces of literature.

The offending books are Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants Series – they’re about two school children’s imaginary superhero friend. They’re also one of Amazon’s bestselling children’s series.

The books’ popularity, and the frequent requests for them to be banned, are, of course, related - nothing gives a piece of literature an added sense of excitement than attempts to ban it.

Perhaps the best example of this took place in August 1960, when Penguin Books announced that it was to publish an unedited edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover in the UK. By then, D. H. Lawrence’s book was nearly 22 years old, yet no less controversial (The original manuscript was banned in the US and UK on the grounds that it was grossly indecent.)

In 1959 Parliament changed the UK’s censorship legislation. The updated law allowed material, which previously would have attracted the censor’s pen, to be published if it contained some ‘literary merit’. Penguin took this as an opportunity to reissue the book, in its original format, and challenged the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions to contest the publication.

Which they did.

The six day trial became one of the most widely reported of the decade consuming column inches across the UK’s press, and leading to The Guardian printing the f-bomb for the first time. Penguin’s ultimate acquittal, and the extensive publicity generated by the trial, helped the book become one of the country’s best selling. The BBC reported at the time that over 200,000 copies were sold across the UK within the first week, and London’s largest bookstore sold out within 15 minutes of opening.

These days we call this The Streisand Effect - named for Barbara, who, by attempting to prevent the publication of photographs of her home, drew more attention to it.

While the Streisand Effect has usually been seen as a by-product of individuals’, corporations’, or governments’ attempts to hide information, it’s now being used by tech giants as a way of drawing attention to what they feel are increasing attempts by governments, police, and courts to censor or access users’ personal information.

In the five months since the EU’s right-to-be-forgotten ruling, EU citizens have asked Google to remove over half a million links from their search results, of which the company has removed nearly 200,000.

Many of these links relate to content that is of little importance to anyone but those involved (e.g. Facebook pages or posts), but the right-to-be-forgotten ruling is also being used by politicians and people in the public eye, who wish to have public-interest content about them disappear from the web.

According to Google, “[In the UK] A public official asked us to remove a link to a student organization’s petition demanding his removal. We did not remove the page from search results.”

So, how do we know all this? In the original ruling Google was ordered to provide Europeans with a way to request that URLs relating to them be removed from search, but it wasn’t prevented from informing users or site owners that search results had been altered. Google has been telling affected sites when their content has been removed from search, and informing users when their search results have been altered due to a right-to-be-forgotten request. Google is also only altering search results for EU domains, users within the EU who use Google.com, rather than Google.co.uk or Google.fr, will be shown unaltered search results.

The EU has been critical of this practice, arguing that Google is complying with the letter, rather than the spirit, of the ruling. The EU is likely to be further annoyed, when this week Google updated its six-monthly Transparency Report to provide details on right-to-be-forgotten requests it has received from EU citizens.

For Google, this is a first amendment fight - it feels it has the right to inform users if the content they’re producing or searching for has been subject to 'censorship'. But Google has another aim. By highlighting each edited search, and each request for access to users’ information, Google hopes those affected users will put pressure on authorities to curtail excessive manipulation of users’ data (sunlight is the best disinfectant, an’ all).

Google’s Transparency report has spawned a dozen others from the tech industry, including Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Vodafone. Google and others also support Chillingeffects.org, the non-profit site that publicises cases where individuals or companies attempt to use the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act to have content removed from the web.

Google’s policy of highlighting removal requests has already been effective for the company. In July this year, the BBC was one of the first media companies to be hit by a take-down – on finding out that some of its content had been removed from Search the Corporation quickly published an article about the disappeared links. This week the Beeb took things further by announcing that it will publish a complete list of its URLs that have been removed from search engines following right-to-be-forgotten requests.

The Director for Editorial Policy and Standards at the BBC, David Jordan, believes that media outlets should be informed before their content is removed from search results, to ensure that information that’s in the public interest stays accessible to the public.

TNW reports that Mr Jordan told Google, “It would be desirable for publishers to be consulted before Google takes a decision on whether or not to remove a link to an online article. Publishers have the full background of the story, insight as to whether a request has come in previously, and if so why we took the decision not to comply, or if certain changes were offered/made.”

Understandably, the BBC, The Guardian, and, indeed, Google worry that the company has now become a censor by proxy - required to make editorial judgements on behalf of EU citizens whether news and other content is in the public interest - without understanding the context in which the news articles they are censoring have been created.

The EU’s right-to-be-forgotten ruling has many merits, but the ruling’s current implementation has done, and will continue to do, what most forms of censorship do – draw attention to information that people want to keep hidden.

We also learned this week about Android Lollipop, why Google is making us stupider, and how our primitive brains respond to digital threats.

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Illustration: Patrick Cusack