4 Jul 2014

Whose right is it to be forgotten, anyway?

(This is an updated version of the original post)

Quick primer: the European court of human rights has ruled that search engines must remove links to web pages if a complainant successfully argues that the link is inadequate or irrelevant.

Someone complained in this manner about Peston’s blog on the US bank Merrill Lynch, and Google removed the link, informing the BBC webmaster once it had done so.

Most people assumed Merrill Lynch was behind the complaint, but in an interview with the BBC this morning, Google’s director of communications revealed that the complaint came from someone who commented on the blog.

To clarify: that means that if you search for the commenter’s name on google.co.uk, you should find no link to Peston’s blog. The aim is to protect the rights of the commenter, not to delete all links to the blog. (So if you search “Peston” and “Merrill’s Mess” you will of course find the blog).


But here’s the thing: if you search google.co.uk for Merrill Lynch in conjunction with the names of each and every person who’s commented on the blog, then in every case a link appears. It’s only when you search for the commenters’ names alone (ie. without adding the phrase “Merrill Lynch”) that you discover that in one person’s case the link has gone, and the page ends with a notice that some links have been removed thanks to EU rules.

Google points out that the notification at the bottom of the page appears even when results have not been removed, because it’s a general warning (hence the phrasing “may have been removed”). But effectively, between the comments of its PR man and the layout of its results page, Google has identified the original complainant.

In addition, the comment left by the person who seems to have been the complainant seems perfectly adequate and, given the content of the blog, deeply relevant, calling into question Google’s logic in upholding the complaint.

Google makes clear that it was not in favour of the European court of justice ruling, and that it is doing its best to make it work in a way that’s fair to all. The Peston example seems to be the first instance in which the difficulty of that challenge has become clear.

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