3 Jul 2014

How to find what Google search is deleting

Getting around the “right to be forgotten” is not hard, and if the reaction to Google’s removal of articles from its search results is anything to go by, the law may even have the opposite effect…

On Tuesday 2 July, emails from Google landed in the inbox of certain UK publishers, saying that the search engine had removed various articles from its search results, on request.

The move followed a ruling by the European Court of Justice in May, upholding an individual’s right to be forgotten. It means that someone can request an article be deleted, if they believe that it contains “inadequate” or “irrelevant” data about them.

So far, the Guardian has been informed of six articles that have been removed from Google’s UK search engine. A 2007 blog by BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston about the former Merill Lynch boss Stan O’Neal was also removed, along with four articles and mages on the Telegraph’s website.

Google said it had received 70,000 deletion requests between 29 May and 30 June, relating to a total of 267,550 web pages – but these were not automatically granted. The top five requesting countries were Germany, with over 12,000 requests, followed by France, the UK, Estonia and Italy.

Google said on average, each request was related to the removal of 3.8 separate URLs. And the recent spate of deletions could just be the beginning.

Getting around Google

But it is not hard to access what Google is removing. The EU ruling does not apply to Google.com – just Google.co.uk and other EU Google sites – and you can switch to the US version of Google by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of your search page (see right).

If you have an iPhone or an iMac, your default web browser will be Safari, which uses Google.com as default anyway. And of course, there are other search engines from outside the EU that aren’t affected for now – sites like DuckDuckGo.com.

Web users can also try getting creative with their search terms. Google, which opposed the EU ruling, appears to be implementing requests literally and deleting only the exact articles that show up when you search for the exact terms specified.

Guardian reporter James Ball notes about one of the articles deleted from Google search: “You can still find a vanished Dougie McDonald page if you search “Scottish referee who lied”; it only disappears when you add his name to the search”.

The EU ruling resulted from a case brought by a Spanish man, who was disputing an article about his home being repossessed in 1998 coming up in his search results. But it obviously has huge and widespread implications for journalism, freedom of speech and holding the powerful to account. There is as yet, no legal process that allows publishers to appeal a deletion.

However, documenting the past is what the internet does best, whether it’s a photo of your breakfast, or a story about a scandal. And Google’s tactic of telling publishers what has been deleted has backfired for the individuals who requested deletions.

Websites have so far responded to the deletion by publishing new articles highlighting what is gone from Google search UK and linking back to them, bringing stories that would rather be forgotten back into the headlines.

On Wednesday, Twitter users were gleefully tweeting links to Robert Peston’s article about Stan O’Neal and “Merill’s mess” that no longer shows up in Google’s UK search.

A Google spokeswoman said: “We have recently started taking action on the removals requests we’ve received after the European Court of Justice decision.

“This is a new and evolving process for us. We’ll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling.”