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Google right to be forgotten 'to get messy' after BBC story disappears

BBC says it is "concerned" that a blog post from 2007 has been removed from Google's search results, but an expert suggests requests to remove data have the potential to backfire.

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The removal of a BBC article from Google's search results in Europe has prompted the broadcaster to express its worries over the implications of stories vanishing from the search giant's system -- but experts say online life in the wake of the "right to the forgotten" ruling is only going to get trickier.

BBC economics editor Robert Peston reports that on 2 July, Google informed the BBC that a blog post from 2007 titled "Merill's Mess" would be removed from search results conducted using European versions of Google. The removal is required of Google following a May ruling by the European Union Court of Justice that said individuals could ask Google to change or delete search listings that refer to them.

Google at the time spoke out against the ruling, saying, "the balance that was struck was wrong," but has now started scrubbing searches that individuals have requested be removed.

A Google spokesperson said: "We have recently started taking action on the removals requests we've received after the European Court of Justice decision. This is a new and evolving process for us. We'll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling."

In reaction to the removal of the 2007 BBC article from Google's European results, a BBC Spokesman said, "We're surprised that this is the outcome of the ECJ ruling and concerned at the implications of the removal from search of this type of material."

Peston suggested that, as the only person mentioned in his 2007 blog post, former banking boss Stan O'Neal may have been the one to request the removal. In an update late last night however, Peston added that Google searches for O'Neal's name still led to the BBC blog post, implying that the request may have come from someone named in the comments section of that page.

"Streisand effect"

Independent computer security analyst Graham Cluley told CNET that individuals' attempts at removing information from search results have the potential to backfire.

"We might even see websites created with the aim of collating and archiving links to pages that Google has been required to remove from its results," said Cluley, "creating a 'Streisand effect' of pointing even more eyeballs in the direction of the contentious content."

The so-called Streisand effect, which is named after US singer Barbra Streisand, refers to attempts at suppressing information that have the unplanned consequence of publicising that information more widely.

"The ruling seems frankly ridiculous," Cluley says, "but the doors have been opened and clearly Google will feel compelled to remove more and more articles from its search results."

"What we're seeing here," said Cluley, "is the physical world trying to come to terms with the digital reality we all live in today. It's going to get messy."

However, Rik Ferguson, vice president of security research at Trend Micro says that the argument that Google's new removals tool is being used for censorship is a weak one.

"Google have not and to my knowledge will not, disclose to which search the decision pertains," Ferguson told CNET. "A search under the name 'Stan O'Neal,' the Merrill Lynch executive name in the article, continues to return this BBC article, so the argument that it is being used to 'censor the past,' particularly of noteworthy individuals, holds little to no water.

"It is far more likely," Ferguson says, "that someone regrets having posted a comment on that article back in 2007, and as the BBC do not offer a means to delete one's own comments, the poster will have had no option but to request that their name as a search term no longer is associated with that content, which is right and proper."

Update, 14:30 BST: This story was updated with a statement from a Google spokesperson.