In our age of Internet transparency, who has the right to be forgotten? Someone who committed an embarrassing misdeed while on a crowded train trip?A former soccer referee who resigned in scandal?A lawyer facing a fraud trial? It is this slippery slope that Google has been forced to negotiate following a ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union. In May, the court demanded that the search engine company abide by requests from ordinary citizens to amend some of its search results to downplay or banish links to outdated, irrelevant information. The goal was to keep people from forever being scarred by embarrassing episodes in their past.
It was a fuzzy legal ruling, putting a burden on Google but also leaving it broad discretion. Just what is outdated and irrelevant? A lot of information is unpleasant, but true, and drawing clear, defensible guidelines for when such information should be suppressed turns out to be harder than the European jurists thought. While it’s easy to sympathize with people who’d like to put a decade-old mistake or mishap behind them, the removal of links to information from legitimate public sources at some point becomes censorship. If nothing else, the European ruling provides a lesson on the pitfalls of having the results of an Internet search algorithm subjected to court scrutiny.
Naturally, the demand for so-called reputation management has been strong. In the aftermath of the ruling, Google has received more than 70,000 removal requests.
The European court has placed Google in an untenable situation, and already Google clearly is wrestling with this unwanted obligation, having earlier this month reversed some of its removal decisions. The most high profile of them involved the British newspaper The Guardian, which had links to stories restored after it complained. Google offered no explanation for its decision. But the situation raises some unfair scenarios: Imagine if people with influence could get links to their past removed, and websites with the clout of The Guardian or the BBC could get them reinstated — but the average person or the independent blogger lacked the same authority?
Sadly, the ambiguity and controversy about what’s fair and not fair in search engine politics will only escalate. If Google emerges as the reputation manager of last resort, the company should at least develop guidelines to provide more clarity for what, if anything, it deems eligible for expunging from the Internet.