googlewall3

Google has started removing links from its search results to comply with a controversial European ruling requiring the company let people remove “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant” information from their digital histories. The Wall Street Journal reports that the company is just making its way through the first round of requests, of which more than 10,000 were submitted every day shortly after the company introduced an online form allowing people to submit links for removal at the end of May. It’s unclear how Google determines which links should be removed under the new law, and the European Union’s commitment to enforcing its ruling is unproven, but that hasn’t stopped the decision from attracting the ire of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and others who think that the removal tool represents a form of censorship. The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor weighs the benefits of forgetting someone’s past with the dangers of this new tool:

The right to be forgotten has great allure – yet it isn’t as far removed from censorship as we might want to believe. This will be a true balancing test, of rights versus laws versus norms, and no matter how we resolve it some people will be harmed in some ways. I’m hoping we’ll establish new norms, where we are relentlessly skeptical of allegations, and where we cut each other considerable slack to be human. As my friend Esther Dyson has wisely advised, let’s have a statute of limitations on stupidity.

Others have welcomed the ruling with open arms precisely because it allows people to have some semblance of control over how their lives are represented online. Gillmor suggests that there should be a statute of limitations on stupidity, but there isn’t one — anything that can be found with a simple Google search is going to affect someone’s life, whether the information is irrelevant or not. As former Pando writer Ted Rall wrote in response to Wales’ complaints:

Google searches are perfunctory, incomplete affairs. What comes up, comes up. If you created something of cultural significance — say, post an essay to Pando — it’s part of our shared cultural patrimony and ought to remain available as long as technically possible. However, it is hard to see how the world is worse off because you can’t find my old Columbia records online. On the other hand, it is easy to see why someone in my position would want this material — which is, in every sense of the world, irrelevant — delinked by Google.

Neither side is likely to change their position on the issue. Some people will think that this is censorship and that the European Union overstepped by requiring Google and other search engines to remove links from their results. Others will appreciate the opportunity to have some record of their past — or even information that is demonstrably false — removed from a page that they previously had little or no control over. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what anyone believes, as I wrote when Google first released the removal request form in May:

I suppose it doesn’t matter how anyone responds to this tool. It’s mandated by the EU, it’s been implemented by Google, and it will probably be used by anyone smart enough to take the chance to remove damaging links about them from the world’s de facto knowledge center. Whether you view that as censoring Google or helping people live their lives without being haunted by their pasts is irrelevant to the effect this tool will have on the Web.