“Hidden from Google” shows sites censored under EU’s right-to-be-forgotten law

5 Comments

News stories about a child rapist, a shoplifter and a financial scandal have all gone missing from Google(s goog) search results in recent weeks — but now links to the stories have reappeared on “Hidden from Google,” a website that is archiving examples of internet censorship that are taking place under a controversial new law.

The law allows EU citizens to force search engines to remove links to websites that they believe display outdated or irrelevant information. The law, which took effect in May in response to a court ruling, has led to an avalanche of “delete me” requests to Google, including many from rogues and criminals.

The law has already led search results from major news outlets like the BBC and the Guardian to disappear, which is what led U.S.web developer Afaq Tariq to create the “Hidden from Google” page.  The site provides a link to the story removed from Google, along with the relevant search term and the source that revealed the missing information. Here’s a screenshot:

Hidden from Google screenshot

Censored pages include a BBC story about Carlos Silvano, a Portuguese pedophile, and a Daily Mail story about Gregory Sim, who had sex on a crowded train in 2008. Tariq told the the BBC that the list is now very short because he wants to ensure that “an article is being censored consistently across European domains” before he includes it.

Overall, the “Hidden from Google” page is likely to add to the ongoing alarm and confusion over the new European law. Implementation of the law has been chaotic as a result of vague instructions from the European Court of Justice, which declared in May that EU citizens could tell Google to delete search results under a 20-year-old data law, but that results in the public interest could remain.

The law is also creating major headaches for Google. In an essay published last week in the Guardian, the company’s top lawyer, David Drummond, explained that Google is reviewing more than 75,000 requests, and is trying to determine which search results to take down.

The issue is more complicated still because the law applies only to national versions of Google — meaning that the story about Carlos Silvano disappeared from sites like Google.co.uk but not Google.com or Google.ca. Also, it’s not always clear who has scrubbed the historical record or why. In the case of a now-missing BBC story about Merrill Lynch chairman Stan O’Neal, it turns out to have been a commenter on the page who triggered the removal, not O’Neal himself.

And while a site like “Hidden from Google” may serve as a censorship watchdog of sorts, it’s hard to imagine how it will be very useful as the removals pile up, and thousands or millions of search listings start to disappear from the internet.

As I’ve argued before, we’re on dangerous ground here as a result of the EU court’s poorly thought-out ruling, which fails to balance the fight to forget against the right to remember.

5 Comments

gonesouth61

You’re more than welcome to code an engine that will provide perfect results.
It’s funny how people bitch and moan about something they get to use free.

Gwyneth Llewelyn

Well, if this continues to go on, Google searches will be much more like the Wikipedia. We all know that Wikipedia — still the fifth largest Website in the world — is actively censored. The advantage is that there are hundreds of thousands of censors, and dozens of millions of active contributors. At such, although page vandalism is still high, it means that the overall image we get from Wikipedia is one that is biased towards what the Wikipedia censors prefer. We still use the Wikipedia every day, even though we know it’s not perfect.

Such could be the case of Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, etc. Over the years, users will tell Google what they should be listing and what they should not. Because this will be done by dozens of millions, it will not be seen as ‘censorship by Google’. Google, like Wikipedia, will only provide the technology; it will be the community of Google search users that decide what should be shown and what should be deleted.

It’s a strange way to see the world, I know. I’m not even sure I agree with that vision. However, Wikipedia showed that massively censored content by a vast community it is not only possible, but successful in providing a valuable service. Google might just do exactly that. They could tie each link with the equivalent of a ‘discussion’ page, where users would discuss what to censor and what to keep around.

Ugly?

Well, this is a cultural thing. The US are probably the last democracy in the world which doesn’t include individual privacy protection in its federal constitution. I’m aware that most US states protect privacy inside their own constitutions, in a shy way, but the effect is that Americans, by default, believe that people ought not to have privacy. Obviously this is a generalisation; there are fortunately plenty of privacy advocates in the US. But they’re in the minority. Instead, the majority feels that privacy is something to be discarded in favour of freedom of expression or other similar rights, which are felt, for a majority of Americans, to be ‘more important’. This is a cultural bias. It’s neither ‘wrong’ nor ‘right’; it’s just a possible world-view.

Europeans — and all the remaining democracies in the world — have privacy laws embedded in their constitutions, and supranational entities like the EU had no choice but to recognise them as well. In fact, pointing out that this is a ’20-year old law’ is a bit misleading. Laws regulating privacy issues throughout Europe were set in place shortly after WWII, when the UN was founded and we got the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to privacy and personal integrity. Most European countries tried to update their constitutions and national laws to adapt the concept to all areas of life. It started with postal services, radio, TV, telephones… and once computer networks were commonplace, more than twenty years ago, they also became covered by the same laws. They might sound ‘odd’ to Americans who have no such obsession with privacy — but have an obsession with freedom of expression (in the sense that the right to know dirty things about your neighbour and post them publicly is more important than your neighbour’s right to keep their dirty things secret — in Europe, we see it precisely the opposite way).

Freedom of expression, in most of Europe, does not include the right to attack people’s personal integrity; to rob them of their right to keep secrets about things they don’t wish the public to know about; the right to be free from libel and defamation. For an American, disallowing all of that reeks of ‘censorship’. For an European, it means allowing people their right to privacy. Again, neither world-view is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

American companies like Google and Facebook pushed hard the envelope of privacy, to the point of rupture, and they got away with it easily enough — because privacy is not so important, at the light of the US federal constitution, as the right to freedom of expression and the right to transact goods and services, no matter what the source. Europeans view this quite differently. Creating a simple database of names and addresses (to be used for commercial purposes) requires a lot of Government authorizations, namely, it has to provide a clear and simple opt-out mechanism. Thus, when data mining giants like Google and Facebook claim that they cannot ever wipe out a person’s account and all their data, because it’s technically unfeasible, they have a problem to comply with European law — and, of course, they put European companies at a disadvantage, since they have to comply with those laws!

Google is now dealing with a complex interpretation of those laws, because they run contrary to their business model — and thus the current mess. I’m sure that there will have to be a compromise at some level: for instance, Google might not allow third parties to ask for content to be removed on behalf of others, but only on behalf of themselves — and demand proof of that. This would also be consistent with European law: everything else, even under European law, would be a violation of freedom of expression. I also think that Google is going too far to comply with one interpretation of those privacy laws; they will have to work with European authorities to understand what the proper interpretation is. I’m sure that it’s clearly not what they are doing right now!

However, I personally see the battle between privacy and freedom of expression to be lost. Since most international data mining companies are American, not European, they will prevail. No matter how hard the EU drops on Google, ultimately the EU knows that they cannot shut down Google in Europe even if Google deliberately violates European privacy laws — Google’s services are far too important for that. So a compromise has to be struck at some point. Google will probably allow some links to be removed in exchange for being allowed to continue to data mine private content and sell it to their advertisers. We saw that happening with software patents as well: they are abhorrent in terms of EU law, but, over the years, because most software giants are American, they are getting software patents to be respected and enforced in the EU as well. I’m sure that European privacy laws are also slowly to get eroded and diminished in their power as the data mining giants become more and more powerful. Ultimately, that might mean that Europeans will have their privacy laws abolished and stricken out of their constitutions as well — as the American world-view prevails. In fact, it’s already happening: most of my friends and acquaintances, although having been raised and educated using an European world-view, don’t understand why European law is so obsessive about protecting one’s privacy — due to the influence of their American friends. And these are the people who will elect the next Governments.

Privacy slowly becomes a thing of the past, and this is happening in Europe as well.

Until, someday, someone’s lack of privacy will show them what they have lost. But that’s the kind of thing that ‘only happens to others’ so it’s not viewed as ‘important’… until it happens to you as well.

Josh

It seems that rather than a manually curated list of censored pages it would be desirable to automatically detect by comparison of results those pages which are being omitted in the EU.

slfisher

“The Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it.”

RFO Jefferson

Of course World War II was way in the past century, and most who were alive then are dead now. So that’s all hardly relevant to today’s public interest. Dear Google, please take down all references to Nazis. There’s no reason today’s right-wingers should be tarred and feathered by the actions of people who lived 70 years ago and are now dead.

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