Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The "right to be forgotten" means the BBC is effectively being censored. Where's the outrage?

More comment on the "right to be forgotten" can be found in a later post.

When the "right to be forgotten", which obliges Google to delete "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" data from its results when a member of the public requests it,was brought into being by the European courts I wrote:
It is public figures who have the money to employ the sort of lawyers Google will take notice of. So it is public figures who are most likely to benefit from the "right to be forgotten".
If you read Robert Peston on the BBC News Business pages today, you will see how right I was.

It begins:
This morning the BBC received the following notification from Google: 
Notice of removal from Google Search: we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google: robertpeston/2007/10/merrills_mess.html 
What it means is that a blog I wrote in 2007 will no longer be findable when searching on Google in Europe. 
Which means that to all intents and purposes the article has been removed from the public record, given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people.
Why has this old blog post of Peston's been weeded from Google's search results? Peston explains
Now in my blog, only one individual is named. He is Stan O'Neal, the former boss of the investment bank Merrill Lynch. 
My column describes how O'Neal was forced out of Merrill after the investment bank suffered colossal losses on reckless investments it had made. 
Is the data in it "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant"? 
If the British courts had given Google the obligation to effectively censor the BBC, my fellow Liberal Democrats would have been up in arms. But so far I have seen no comment on this case from any of them.

Perhaps this shows that when you add the magic word "Europe" to any debate, we tend to suspend our critical faculties.

In fact it is worse than that.

The "right to be forgotten" was enthusiastically welcomed by Liberal Democrat MEPs (in the days when it was possible to use that plural). Here is Sarah Ludford writing in May:
It is gratifying that the Court has backed the ‘right to erasure’ that MEPs recently demanded be made explicit in the EU's updated data protection law. Coming hot on the heels of the Court’s strikedown of the Data Retention Directive, it is clear beyond doubt that the EU’s highest judicial authority stands squarely behind the European Parliament and Liberal Democrats in strengthening EU privacy rights.
It is now up to the 28 EU governments to respond to this array of forces and stop running away from the challenge to curb overreach by the state and the private sector. Enabling EU citizens to have trust that their online data will stay in their control will boost, not harm, the digital economy.
But, just as I forecast, it is not private citizens who are benefiting from this new right but the rich and powerful.

As Peston explains:
Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record - especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory (Merrill went to the brink of collapse the following year, and was rescued by Bank of America).


Phil Thane said...

Time to teach people there is more than one search engine. The piece is easily findable on DuckDuckGo and IXQuick.

Anonymous said...

Trouble is, all search engines are subject to the same rules, although there may be scope for interpreting the ECJ judgment more liberally than Google have.

Hughster said...

All one needs to do in order to circumvent this bonkers censorship is to switch from to

Martin Tod said...

Agree that this is highly concerning. It's very hard to see how this won't be abused by people in positions of power and responsibility.

Even if there are some 'hard cases' that need some level of protection, it's extremely hard to see how this particular response addresses it. It also seems strange to put the primary responsibility for deciding this onto Google's internal processes. This also means that no case law will be established and that there is no transparency about what should be a process that requires a ton of scrutiny in the early stages of its establishment.

Looking at the original Spanish case, it seems strange to categorise public information about foreclosure with 'personal data'.

In this particular case, the man had paid off his debts in full - surely a more proportionate response might be to require the data originator to append this fact to the original report - or even for Google to include the discharge information in their search results.

Certainly, in the UK, information about bankruptcy remains public even when the bankruptcy is discharged.

It also seems perverse that the publisher is able to publish the data and is able to tag it as searchable (since all web pages have this as an option) but that the search engine cannot report it.

A more interesting case is the concept of the 'spent' conviction - which is considered 'personal information' after the relevant period of time - and for which there are significant legal limitations.

Martin Tod said...

Or rather: "A more interesting question is the concept of the 'spent' conviction - which is considered 'personal information' after the relevant period of time - and for which there are significant legal limitations."