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Right to be Forgotten ruling sees Google inadvertently censoring the press

An unfortunate side-effect of the EU’s Right to be Forgotten ruling is becoming increasingly apparent. News stories are disappearing from Google’s Web searches, effectively rendering them invisible to a large percentage of Internet users, resulting in a backward form of press censorship.

The Right to be Forgotten came into effect during May, and allows anyone living in Europe to ask search engines to remove results containing their exact name, that’s linked to private or personal material. This sounds reasonable, and because it’s only a request, there’s no guarantee it’ll happen, so reams of content won’t just disappear from Google overnight.

However, BBC reporter Robert Peston has pointed out a flaw in this very new ruling. He wrote an article on the ousting of Merrill Lynch’s former president back in 2007, but this week received a “notice of removal” from Google, saying the site was no longer able to show the page “in response to certain searches.”

Someone had made a request to Google, which had obviously been honored, to remove the page from its results. According to Google, it was receiving 10,000 similar requests each day after the removal form went live on its site. However, results can only be removed if they’re “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant” and Peston argued that the subject of his piece remained a matter of public interest, given the subject’s high status, and should be on record.

Commenters could cause the problem

What Peston assumed was that it was the Merrill Lynch boss who’d asked for the page to be removed, but this isn’t the only possibility. Instead, the takedown request may have been filed by a commenter on the original story. The Merrill Lynch story can still be seen on other websites, making it even more likely it was someone indirectly related to it who asked for the result to be removed.

Peston’s not the only one to have been affected either. A list of at least 10 other stories which no longer appear in Google’s EU search results can be found at marketingland.com, and many come from noted journalistic publications (no, we’re not counting the Daily Mail) such as the Guardian. We doubt it was the EU’s intention to censor the press, and it’s clear the new ruling needs refining, but Google must also share some of the blame.

A spokesman for the European Union told the BBC said that while Google would want to make sure it complied with new legislation, it would be an expensive and time-consuming process, and that perhaps it “decided it’s simply cheaper just to say yes.” Google disagrees, and states each request is judged on its own merit. It’s all very well for someone to want non-relevant results out of the way, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of burying potentially important and sometimes unrelated stories.