Gone, but not forgotten?

Google Fotget Me
The omniscience of Google is not a new idea, and Google’s place at the heart of everything, not just what’s online, seems increasingly to be a given – I’m a recent convert to the Android mobile OS, and for all that it’s a bit embarrassing, it feels oddly natural to say “Okay Google” when asking the phone to do everything from give me information, to make a call, to set a reminder. Because Google is that now old friend that can help out with anything.

Google “knowing everything” is therefore obviously a good thing.

OR: If you’re the European Court of Justice, in some contexts, Google knowing everything is self-evidently a bad thing. Its so-called “right to be forgotten” ruling in May this year created a right for individuals to force the removal of search engine indices of their online presence in certain circumstances.

By most measures it’s a short-sighted ruling, and reinforces that feeling that often occurs when reading how various national governments try to legislate restrictions around the internet; that they don’t really understand how the technology they’re legislating works.

Just deleting a search engine’s record of the online reference doesn’t actually remove the reference itself, so what’s been enshrined in law is more properly described as “the right to be forgotten by Google”. Work hard enough at it, and finding the challenged content will still be possible.

And even calling this the right to be forgotten by Google isn’t really valid, because it’s not like someone can contact Google Towers and say “delete all your indexed references to me” – the best that one can do is indicate specific instances of content which personally identifies them and is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive”. And then it’s up to the search engine initially to decide whether it’s appropriate to action the request. The Court itself explicitly noted in its ruling that the right to be forgotten is not absolute.

So between a lack of technical clarity (or understanding), a limit to what the law can in any case achieve, and leeway in interpretation, pretty much everyone looking at this ruling saw chaos coming over the horizon.

And progressively the chaos is arriving:

After an initial wave of deletions, some pages are now being reinstated – Google has been accused of just actioning every request as a way of passively protesting a decision they’ve made clear they disagree with, though they’ve denied that was their practice.

BBC Business Editor Robert Peston had notification that one of his stories would be de-indexed. His initial assumption was that the only person named in it had complained, but in fact it was requested for deletion by someone who had commented on the article. This opens up a startling additional component to the ruling. By successfully requesting the de-indexing of an article on which you commented, you can actively affect the visibility of other people on the internet, including those who are quite happy to be visible, or indeed those for whom there is a legitimate public interest justification for keeping visible, such as the subject of Peston’s story.

For a brand this could have significant consequences, especially if you run content which encourages user input. Your finely-crafted insight piece showing you at the leading edge of your industry, with its associated intelligent discussion between key opinion formers in your space, could vanish completely from search engines if someone in the discussion can force a view that their contribution is “outdated, irrelevant or no longer relevant”.

Google’s interests are definitely not served by the ruling, and passive protest could be their most effective weapon. But brands also need to be aware that the provisions of the ruling are broad enough (or at least open enough to interpretation) that it could have an impact on their own visibility even if they don’t want to be affected by the “right to be forgotten”.