Google Complies With EU “Right To Be Forgotten,” Disappoints

on Friday, May. 30th

As I get older I find myself becoming sympathetic to the idea of “radical transparency.”

The recent ruling by the highest court in the European Union establishing a “right to be forgotten” for its citizens has created a tricky trap for search giant Google: they have to provide a way for EU citizens to remove search results that link to pages that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.” That’s a pretty broad mandate, and it has been left to Google to define how to do this.

So they created a form.

The form requires a photo ID, a list of the offending URLs, a statement of what country the request originates from, and an explanation of how the request meets the EU criteria.

Naturally there are critics that say this isn’t enough.

Apologies to Ars Technica for taking a big chunk from their republication of the excellent Wired UK piece by Liat Clark on the Google “right to be forgotten” European Union form piece, but it’s necessary to get into the debate. (Make up for my sin by reading the whole original piece.)

Julia Powles, a law researcher at the University of Cambridge, told that she believes the form is “disappointingly clever,” and perhaps not a completely genuine response to Google’s predicament. After seeing the form, “the public will do the job of decrying the ruling as unworkable,” she said.

“Personally I think it’s a real shame that it shows no proactive creativity beyond the ruling, particularly after the time and huge amount of interest and concern this case has generated,” Powles said. “Google doesn’t explicate how it will make the effects transparent, e.g., by promising to show in the de-identified form how results are dealt with or algorithms re-engineered. It therefore does little to ameliorate private censorship concerns. Nor has Google offered in any way an explanation for how its solution could interface with other intermediaries. This shows a lack of leadership in responding to a ruling that presents a significant opportunity.”

She argued that the simplistic response puts the emphasis on a user working hard for their removal request—particularly because they have to copy and paste every single URL that affects their case. “Just think how many URLs there are now to Costeja’s case!” she said, pointing to Mario Costeja González, the man who originally brought the “right to be forgotten” case to the EU courts over a news article that mentioned his house had been repossessed after he failed to pay his debts. “Google is the one with the capacity to do this, not users.”

I’m sorry, but Powles’ arguments read like hollow legalese built on top of minimal technical knowledge to my eyes. The only “significant opportunity” this ruling created was the one that would create a nightmare algorithm that would spider through the web and make half-baked judgment calls about what was and wan’t relevant to the complaint. It takes a human intelligence to decode meaning and context from web content. Unleash the robots and suddenly a request from a “Maximillian Martini” could wipe about cocktail recipes across the EU.

Where would barristers be then, hmm?

Copy and pasting all those URLs is going to be a pain in the ass, sure, but the burden of any civil legal complaint starts with the petitioner. Computers, for all their processing power, are not intelligent: they will do what you ask them to do to a freaking fault. Which means that algorithms would both over and under reach. If you want your reputation repaired you’re going to have to take an active role in that process. Anything else would be a fool’s bargain.

As for Mario Costeja González: shall all references to his victory in the courts be scrubbed as well since they refer to the original problem? Rewriting history is a slippery slope. Better that the ruling should have been a “right to correction”: that updated information would be prioritized in the search results at all costs. Push those results to the top and change the cultural narrative away from scrubbing the past to showing that people evolve, change, and are redeemed.

That sounds a hell of a lot healthier of a society than one that is constantly rearranging the past, like something out of a dime store knock-off of a Philip K. Dick novel.


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