That link to that old damaging news story about you? You can now make Google take it down

A Google SERP for a search on my name

The European Court of Justice has ruled that “An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties” because, if I’m reading this correctly, a Google SERP for an individual’s name constitutes an overview of that person’s life, and if it includes damaging outdated information that breaches that person’s right to be forgotten, Google is responsible.

So if that picture up there of a Google search of my name included information about how I had done something damaging a decade ago, I could compel Google to take it down. In Europe, at least. 

Mashable have a nice write up of what this may mean over on their site, which touches upon whether this means Google search results will be different in the 28 European states affected by this ruling than they are in the USA and whether this means publishers will be compelled to remove old news from archives because someone wants to be forgotten.

Because it’s not that the information is out there – that seems to be accepted – it’s that the internet and search engines make that information easy to find.

Using that logic, can this law be applied to any site with an archive and a search box? Because if someone can easily find an archived news story from 2000 on a news site via the search box, is that a breach of the individual(s) featured in that news story’s rights? The story itself can stay (unless it’s libelous or inaccurate I suppose) but the mechanism to easily find that story must be removed.

Which seems like a pretty damn odd bit of sophistry to me, but what do I know?

The ruling states that:

…the extent of the responsibility of the operator of the search engine, the Court holds that the operator is, in certain circumstances, obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name. The Court makes it clear that such an obligation may also exist in a case where that name or information is not erased beforehand or simultaneously from those web pages, and even, as the case may be, when its publication in itself on those pages is lawful.

So a news organisation can write a negative story about me that is both legal and accurate, but I can make Google make that story unfindable? How is that going to work?

The ruling also talks about the age of damaging information, but then complete fails to state the length of time after which the removal of said damaging information can be requested.

Finally, in response to the question whether the directive enables the data subject to request that links to web pages be removed from such a list of results on the grounds that he wishes the information appearing on those pages relating to him personally to be ‘forgotten’ after a certain time, the Court holds that, if it is found, following a request by the data subject, that the inclusion of those links in the list is, at this point in time, incompatible with the directive, the links and information in the list of results must be erased.

That’s really helpful ECJ. Thanks.

Now the basis of this ruling (keeping in mind that I am not a legal expert in any way shape or form) seems to be the difference between public and private information and the extent to which the public have a right to know something which is private information about an individual.

So let’s say I’m 17 and drunk (these two things happened frequently at that point in my life) and I’m driving (which has never happened, I don’t have a driving license, never took the test though I did a few lessons) and I run over and kill someone’s beloved dog (and I really can’t emphasise enough that this didn’t happen, this is just a theoretical example). And then my local newspaper writes a story going blah blah drunken teenage dog murder blah.

And it’s out there. I did it (except that I didn’t) and it made the news and people know about it and I have to live with the consequences.

Except now I don’t, because I have a right for that to be forgotten and I can get any SERPs that include the fact I was a teenage dog murderer (still wasn’t) from appearing when someone searches for my name.

Nevermind that the dog’s owner almost certainly hasn’t forgotten it and my family won’t have forgotten it (if I had done this it would be coming up in family arguments even now), no, because this would now be 16 years in the past, I can wipe my internet slate clean.

I’m not sure I agree with that as a concept.

Admittedly, the ruling only states that search engine providers are

obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name

So I could get the article removed from search if someone types in my name, but not if someone Google’s “drunken teenage dog killer 1998?”

And how do you define a name? I have a pretty distinctive name and most of the results when you Google me are about me. But if I had a less rare name and someone else’s damaging information was appearing when I Googled myself, could I get Google to remove that on the basis that I am being falsely associated with it?

Because it might be damaging to me, but not damaging to someone else who shares my name – and which one has priority? Will all internet references have to state that I am this Hari Patience and not that Hari Patience. (Though, there is to my knowledge only one Hari Patience.)

And what if I went to work for a charity that worked with animals, might they have not a right to know fictional 17 year old drunken me had killed a dog?

However, inasmuch as the removal of links from the list of results could, depending on the information at issue, have effects upon the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information, the Court holds that a fair balance should be sought in particular between that interest and the data subject’s fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data.

And who decides what information can be public and what should be private? The search engine does – but only after someone has requested information to be removed.

when appraising such a request made by the data subject in order to oppose the processing carried out by the operator of a search engine, it should in particular be examined whether the data subject has a right that the information in question relating to him personally should, at this point in time, no longer be linked to his name by a list of results that is displayed following a search made on the basis of his name… unless there are particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public in having access to the information when such a search is made

As someone who works with digital publishing I have had requests to take information down – one man was officially chastised by his membership institute for something or other, but that chastisement had a time limit on it (2 years I think) and after those 2 years he wanted the notification of his chastisement removed from the internet. The editor agreed (I didn’t but got shouted down) and the digital copy of the news item in question was removed.

And then he came back and said he wanted the PDF of the magazine from 2+ years ago amended so his chastisement was removed and I was very much against that because that is part of the official record. It was accurate at that time and should have remained so.

I got shouted down again, the PDF was edited.

Then he came back and said that the news story was still recorded in Google’s cache and we should get it taken down.

And I was able to gladly tell him that was beyond our control and he should go talk to Google. Who I hope completely ignored him (it was on page 7 or something when you Googled his name. It was a completely unreasonable request).

But now, that unpleasant person is going to be able to compel Google to remove references to that information from SERPs from his name.

And I’m sorry but that really is a step too far.

I’m not too bothered about Google SERPs looking different depending on which country you are in – they’re already personalised based on your search history and G+ account that one more change won’t hurt them.

But I am bothered about the amount of time Google is going to have to waste dealing with crazy people who don’t feel they should have to live with the consequences of their actions.

If you killed that fictional dog it should be something that stays on your permanent search record because YOU DID IT. YOU HAVE TO LIVE WITH IT. If you want it to not be in your top page of search results for your name go out there and do some notable nice things that newspapers will write about to push the reports of your transgressions down to the second page of search results.

No one reads past page one anyway.

This whole ruling smacks of internet censorship and I don’t like it one little bit.

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