The “right to be forgotten” is in a no-win position. People complained when Google removed links to news stories from the Guardian, the BBC, and the Daily Mail because they thought the rule effectively allowed people to stifle press freedoms. Now the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is in charge of handling the law’s implementation, has told the Guardian that it expects people whose requests to remove links from search results have been denied to start complaining that Google is infringing on their newly-granted right to oblivion.
That first complaint is foolish. The ruling doesn’t affect journalists’ ability to report on people, and if Google implements the rule properly, it won’t affect their stories’ reach, either. As I wrote in a post published after the outrage machine started spinning its gears last week:
Google, the techno-liberal’s icon of choice, has removed a story about a former executive after a government mandate, thus infringing on the press and its ability to reveal corporate corruption? That’s an outrage fetishist’s wet dream.
It’s also bullshit. The ruling refers specifically to Web pages with “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant” information. The stories about O’Neal are certainly relevant, which leaves two explanations for their removal: either the BBC’s information was inadequate, or the links were mistakenly removed from Google’s search results and should be immediately restored. Neither possibility should make people think that the court’s ruling threatens the freedom of the press.
Indeed, as Pando’s Mark Ames pointed out after my post was published on Thursday, the biggest problem with the “right to be forgotten” law — at least for Google — is that it’s shown the world just how much control Google has over the way millions of people find information:
Never in history has one corporation and one source had so much power over what we know and don’t know. Nothing comes close — not the BBC, not CNN, not the New York Times — nothing even approaches Google’s centralization of information across borders, across media platforms, across industries. In part because no information or knowledge platform has ever offered anything as practical as Google; in part because Google acts like a predatory monopoly, warping everything in its way.
It’s because of Google’s awesome monopolistic power over what we know that we worry about losing our privacy, and want the right to be forgotten within their search results; and it’s because we’re so reliant on Google as the monopoly on knowledge that it doesn’t take much to spark latent (if misdirected) fears about Orwellian censorship and slippery slopes if an article like the BBC story on Stan O’Neal is deleted from the monopoly’s record.
The second complaint — that people are going to write to ICO when their requests to have a link removed from search results is denied — is equally foolish. Of course people are going to complain when they’re told they can’t get something they want. Expecting otherwise would be like expecting a baby not to cry when you rip a lollipop from its mouth and throw it away.
But it’s the combination of the complaints that should have some people worried. ICO told the Guardian that publishers who have been informed of a link to their websites being nixed from search results will not be able to appeal to have the links restored. (The group says that it’s because “they are not the data subject,” or the person affected by link removal.)
If a publication’s only recourse is to appeal to Google, which has admitted that its efforts to comply with the new rule aren’t yet perfect, the government has effectively given the company even more control over the information people access. Giving slighted people an outlet for their frustrations is acceptable; refusing to protect publications from erroneous link removals is not.
This doesn’t make publications more susceptible to government or private censorship — it puts them at Google’s mercy once and for all. Now that’s something to complain about.