There is no way to get search engine companies to erase information from the Internet. That is the lesson lawyers, censors and overzealous regulators should learn from the way Google is applying last month’s decision by the European Court of Justice to grant people the “right to be forgotten.”
The right involves removing search result information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive.” Google now has an application form for those who want to clean up their searchable histories. It’s been up since Friday, and more than 41,000 people used it in the first four days. Google, which is unhappy with the ruling, has leaked some details on who these people are – without naming names, of course. They include a doctor with bad reviews, a pedophile, an actor who once had an affair with a teenager, and a convicted cyberstalker who likes privacy since being named in an article on cyberstalking laws.
Perhaps it is fair that these people’s pasts should not affect their current lives if they’ve repented or even done time. Discussing the fairness of their requests is beside the point, though, because their right to forget won’t be granted in any meaningful way.
Right now Google tells those who submit the form to get in line: The privacy requests will be processed by real people, not algorithms. There is even a committee headed by the company’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt that will review the process. The complainers shouldn’t be too hopeful, though. Even if Google censors its search results for them, it will insert a notice at the bottom of the results page, the way it does now for material removed for copyright reasons (try searching for “watch The Wolf of Wall Street online,” or any other movie, and you will see what the notices look like.)
Let’s say Englishman John Smith was convicted of rape 15 years ago and is now wooing a woman. She decides to check him out on Google and gets a little notice at the bottom of the page that says some information has been removed under the “right to be forgotten.” The woman will no doubt ask Smith himself.
In addition, the removed information will still come up in searches conducted from Google sites outside the EU, be it google.com in the U.S., google.ua in Ukraine or google.hk in Hong Kong. All these sites are available from anywhere, including Europe. Even if EU regulators force Google to close them to European audiences, because their availability makes a joke of the local privacy rules, people will still be able to use non-European search engines such as China’s Baidu or Russia’s Yandex to find whatever they want. Sure, they aren’t as good as Google: It has indexed about 45 billion web pages, while Yandex’s index is less than half the size. They are, however, perfectly serviceable, especially if you’ve already been alerted to the fact that there’s something to find which Google has removed.
One could say Google is being willfully uncooperative: If it really wanted to implement the European ruling, it would have censored all its search results, not just the ones displayed by default in EU countries, and it would not have inserted the notice. It’s to be expected, however, that Google would support the letter and not the spirit of rulings that undermine its core business by messing with search results. That would give too big an opening to its competitors. Yandex, for one, has its eyes on international expansion and has already moved into Turkey.
There are effective ways to censor the internet and they are used in China and Iran, but even there people find ways to break through to the information they seek. During a two-month ban on YouTube in Turkey that was just lifted, the video site kept receiving Turkish traffic. Europeans have no stomach for mimicking these kinds of draconian attempts at restriction, so Google is likely to get away with token compliance with the “right to be forgotten” ruling.
Bureaucrats and judges should stop treating the internet as if it were a paper archive stored at a physical location. This is the 21st century after all.