Search on Google for “Robert Peston caused the credit crunch” and the results are disappointing. To Joe Public, it would appear that he had nothing to do with the financial travails of the end of the noughties, when everyone knows he single-handedly torpedoed Northern Rock, which started everything. Clearly, Peston has asked Google to remove all traces of his single hand in the affair with the help of the new EU “right to be forgotten” ruling.
Of course, none of the above is true. But the BBC’s economics editor was in the news when he realised that a blog he had written for the BBC about Stan O’Neal, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, no longer appeared in a Google search for O’Neal’s name. The article dealt with O’Neal’s role in the collapse of the company and was necessarily less than flattering – but was, importantly, true. And because it was on the BBC, it was a prominent, trusted source of information and would rank highly on a Google search.
It turns out that a request had come through to Google under the EU Ruling. Somebody wanted the story about Stan to disappear. And Google had no choice but to oblige. O’Neal has denied having anything to do with it and Peston seems to think that someone who commented on the post was the complainant (and rumours abound about who it was and why they made the request).
But here’s the weird bit. The blog post remains. Indeed, the same post can still be located by Googling other parts of it. It’s just the association with O’Neil through Google in Europe that has vanished. And a user could still fool Google by pretending to be from a country where the law does not apply.
It’s worrying to think that people with serious criminal convictions could not have their murky past appear on a search for their name, which is what many potential employers do when a CV lands on their desk. Wouldn’t you rather know about a conviction your child minder had?
The measure is also supposed to help combat so-called “revenge porn”. This is where ex-lovers post pictures and videos that they had made – with consent – whilst under the influence of romance, only to find the same media going public – without consent – after the couple or trio break up. Again, it’s not the sort of thing you want a potential employer, parent or grandchild to see when they search for your name, and although a criminal act in many countries, that would be small comfort.
There’s a strong counterargument, however. PushON’s Julie Abbott pointed out that in law, some relatively minor crimes can indeed be “forgotten” – like points on a driving licence – after a period of time. Once the penalty has been served and the debt to society paid, should people have to have the crimes hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives? This measure, blunt though it is, goes some way to keeping such news from a Google search.
Ultimately, we can’t change history. Google has admitted that it is still working its way through the legislation, and might have acted over-zealously. Indeed, the company has reinstated some links it removed after requests. People are queuing up to have their entries on Google’s list removed for their own purposes.
But importantly, the pages that are being linked to remain in place. Direct links, bookmarks and internal searches will still find them, but anyone looking would have to know they exist. And if you’ve got something you’d rather people didn’t know, you can now work on making those resources harder to find through Google.
Google is trying to ascertain the balance and has, encouragingly, asked for help in gauging citizens’ feelings on the subject. If you feel strongly, it’s certainly worth leaving your opinions here.
“It’s interesting to see Google have set up an “advisory council” to their obligation to remove results (see above link). They’re obviously quite aggrieved about the whole thing, maybe rightly so if they’re receiving over 1,000 requests a day, but maybe that’s the great responsibility that comes with the great power they’ve created for themselves. Commenters have suggested that individuals will start to complain when their requests are denied, so it’ll be fun to see what coverage that gets when this starts to come out in the media. Obviously the level of acceptable request is what the advisory council is aiming to define.
What we haven’t really seen any huge reaction to yet is that from brands and businesses, who for years may have spent a lot of money to manage their online reputation, particularly in response to negative results appearing in brand searches. As with Julie’s point, some of these negative results relate to events from years in the past that maybe should be forgotten now? It’s a can of worms really when considering the moral side to it, but thankfully it’s one that Google can deal with themselves for now. Bing don’t seem to want to play ball yet though, pushing back any system for dealing with their own requests. Will we see a large number of searchers migrating to Bing to get ALL the results? Unlikely.”
Jonny Pennington, Online Marketing Consultant
“Looking at this with a social hat on, we have to consider those articles that are posted publicly across social media. The right to be forgotten has been brought to the attention of the public with the Mr Peston débâcle and doing a quick search on Twitter we can see that people are publishing articles on the subject.
With Twitter and Facebook being public platforms for opinions to form, do we then start monitoring what people say and look to remove those tweets and Facebook posts from search in addition to the pages they have requested to be removed?”
Pedrom Pourkashanian, Online Marketing and Social Media Strategist