Google finds right to be forgotten 'difficult', but says it's 'learning'

A Google spokesperson confronted by the BBC over the removal of articles from search results admits it is in a "learning process."

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Google is finding the right to be forgotten "difficult" and admits, "We are learning as we go."

The "right to be forgotten" has been enshrined in law by the European Union, which means people can apply to have out-of-date information about them struck out of online search results. Anyone can ask for search engines like Google and Bing to remove from search results any online article or post referring to out-of-date or irrelevant information -- such as a false accusation or wrongful arrest -- but critics argue that ne'er-do-wells could use it to whitewash their past.

Adjusted search results are flagged for users, and Google is contacting anyone whose articles have been removed.

Peter Barron, Google's director of communications for Europe, described the current situation as a "learning process." Speaking to the BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Barron was confronted by the Beeb's economics editor Robert Peston who pointed out one of his stories had been removed from Google search results this week. Peston received an email from Google informing him of the removal.

The BBC article, from 2007, criticised banker Stan O'Neal, causing Peston to speculate that it was O'Neal as the subject of the story who asked for it to be excised from Google. But O'Neal denies doing so, and it appears that the request was actually made by someone who commented on the article.

"It is completely understandable," says Barron, "that Robert assumed it was Stan O'Neal who made the complaint. So that's something we'll look at. We could perhaps say 'bear in mind it may not be the person you think it is'."

Even though it was not O'Neal who applied for the removal of the article, the fact his name is once again being bandied around highlights one of the problems with the current process. This is a perfect example of the "Streisand effect," where an attempt to suppress information inadvertently draws more attention than the original information would have done.

The phenomenon is named after the US singer Barbra Streisand, who once tried to remove aerial photographs of her house from a study of California coastal erosion, drawing thousands of people to view the pictures.

The Guardian newspaper also complained that articles had been removed, three of them referring to disgraced Scottish Premier League referee Dougie McDonald. They appear to have now been reinstated.

Barron pointed out that articles are only removed from search results returned when you specifically search for the name of the person in question. Articles mentioning them can be still be found by searching for other related terms.

Articles are also only removed from European Google sites. If you simply go to Google.com instead of Google.co.uk, for example, you'll be able to see unaltered search results.

 

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