When you search online there’s an unwritten assumption that you’ll get an instant answer, as well as additional information if you need to dig deeper. This is all possible because of two decades’ worth of investment and innovation by many different companies. Today, however, search engines across Europe face a new challenge – one we’ve had just two months to get our heads around. That challenge is figuring out what information we must deliberately omit from our results, following a ruling from the European Union’s court of justice.
In the past we’ve restricted the removals we make from search to a very short list. It includes information deemed illegal by a court (such as defamation), pirated content (once we’re notified by the right’s holder), malware, personal information such as bank details, child sexual abuse imagery and other things prohibited by local law (such as material that glorifies Nazism in Germany).
All reasonable – stuff where a court has made a decision, or things specifically prohibited by a statute.
We’ve taken this approach because, as article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
But the European court found that people have the right to ask for information to be removed from search results that include their names if it is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive”. In deciding what to remove search engines must also have regard to the public interest. These are, of course, very vague and subjective tests.
The result being that Google has to decide what information on people we are allowed to find!
It’s for these reasons that we disagree with the ruling. That said, we obviously respect the court’s authority and are doing our very best to comply quickly and responsibly. It’s a huge task, as we’ve had over 70,000 take-down requests covering 250,000 web pages since May. So we now have a team of people reviewing each application individually, in most cases with limited information and almost no context.
The examples we’ve seen so far highlight the difficult value judgments search engines and European society now face: former politicians wanting posts removed that criticise their policies in office; serious, violent criminals asking for articles about their crimes to be deleted; bad reviews for professionals like architects and teachers; comments that people have written themselves (and now regret). In each case someone wants the information hidden, while others might argue that it should be out in the open.
None of it should be hidden. The decision to remove content should be made by the original publisher, if anyone.