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Is Google's 'right to be forgotten' a gag order for the media?


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The internet is awash with cries of censorship, and search engine giants Google have found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Why? Well, the European Court of Justice ruled in May that Google must comply with requests for old or irrelevant information that can be dragged up in a Google search to be removed.

This somewhat strange ruling stems from a case brought by a Spanish gentleman named Mario Costeja González, who claimed that his life was being affected by an article written sixteen years ago. He was concerned that one of the first hits upon Googling his own name was an article from 1998 - a mere 36 words long - which noted that he had run into some money troubles and his home was being repossessed to cover his debt. Fair enough. 

Luckily for Costeja González, the European court agreed. They believed that even though the Spanish newspaper who published the ludicrously short article were acting in the public interest, being able to so easily access the piece nearly two decades later was an infringement on Costeja González's privacy and he had the right to request its removal. Job done. Sadly for Costeja González, the implications of such a hard ruling, paired with the infamous 'right to be forgotten', means Costeja González will go down in history. His name and his money troubles have been written about by hundreds of publications in connection with this apparently controversial ruling. He will never be forgotten.

Upon hearing about the ruling, I thought the right to be forgotten was something everybody deserved, especially as a graduate looking for work. It’s no longer (too much) or a narcissistic move to Google yourself when employers are doing the same and being the generation that grew up on the internet, sometimes your digital footprint is unflattering. It was comforting to know that if I discovered anything embarrassing from my teenage days on a Google search it would be possible to request the information would be moved.

But then, after seeing the student publication I was once editor of completely disappear from the search engine like it never existed, I changed my mind. It made me think about the issue of censorship and the right for the public to know certain things. An article from twenty years ago still darkening the reputation of a convict who has served their time may seem irrelevant, but depending on the crime, could have unthinkable consequences if the public were simply allowed to forget about the incident altogether. The ‘right to be forgotten’ seems to be particularly appealing to those that would rather forget, recent figures suggest that the search engine are receiving 1,000 removal requests per day – with more than 70,000 requests in total.

Lib Dem justice minister Simon Hughes has apparently condemned the ruling, saying people do not have an “unfettered” right to ask companies like Google to remove links to sites that contain information about them. Although if expenses scandal charges were levied against politicians, I’d be interested in seeing how quickly they would ask for that information to be removed, in order to protect their own reputation. He did however, say that in many circumstances of the ‘right to be forgotten’ enforcement, it was in the public interest to keep the information online and searchable. Perhaps having your digital slate wiped clean is a luxury reserved only for politicians.

A cynic might suggest that Google’s sweeping deletions of popular publications is a deliberate ploy, designed to provoke outrage. If that is the case, Google are getting exactly what they want. Googling the ruling under the ‘news’ tab produces hundreds of articles published in a wide spread of publications, almost all claiming the European Court’s ruling is a ludicrous attempt to police the internet. We’ve already seen the law struggle with social networks such as Twitter, when insults and off-hand jokes are made and somehow are perceived as a real and tangible threat. In a Guardian article discussing the deletions from their own website, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond claimed that the company – who obviously oppose the ruling – are still “working out the right way to implement the judgement and has made some errors.” Sure Drummond, if that’s how you want to spin it.

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