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In-depth

Is Google's “right to be forgotten” ruling having the intended effect?

With the backlash against Google's "right to be forgotten" ruling underway, can we really ever forget anything?

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Censorship is a thorny issue and, no matter how virtuous the intentions behind Google's "right to be forgotten" ruling in the EU might have been, many have pegged it as the dawn of a new era of web censorship during which anyone can appeal against information being in the public domain.

The issue has proven controversial since results started to be removed last week but, with journalists from high profile sites such as BBC News and The Guardian appealing against their articles being scrubbed out, some news outlets have seemingly found a loophole in the system.

The Surrey Comet, among others, has bypassed the ruling by simply publishing an article about the request from Google, with a link publicising the original story more. Therefore, instead of removing the information from public view by erasing the link from Google search results, a lot more people are reading the offending' material as a result of the move.

The Surrey Comet 2010 article covers a college losing money on a fundraising concert, with the reasons for its removal not yet made apparent by Google.

Search history

This is just the latest development related to the "right to be forgotten" ruling, which promises to take away information deemed "irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate" from EU Google search results if requested. Not all requests will be approved, but many have criticised the search engine for being too eager to comply with the deluge of applications it has received.

There has also been speculation that Google has made a deliberate effort to make the ruling appear unworkable, with notifications to journalists and publications upon an article's removal from search results sparking outrage and debate that publicises the stories in question.

It's no secret that Google, along with sceptical journalists and news outlets, fought against the ruling when it was proposed, since it now has the unenviable job of sifting through thousands of requests where the removal of links could easily lead to negative attention for them (a ship that has arguably already sailed) or much worse if the wrong information is removed in the scuffle.

Early requests reportedly included those regarding fraud, violent crimes and child pornography arrests, with an ex-politician, a paedophile and a GP among the applicants before the ruling came into effect.

Though Google is not revealing the reasons for articles being taken down, nor who is making the requests, it can be deduced that many of the cited reasons have to do with reputation management. This has some pretty nasty implications when it comes to deciding what is in the public interest and what is "irrelevant" or "otherwise inappropriate", and the legal guidelines on this are somewhat unclear.

There's an inherent contradiction in the ruling, and it might not take long before that contradiction causes the whole thing to collapse. Google's method of notifying the source of articles being removed journalists and news sites with a vested interest in keeping themselves as searchable as possible could be what tips it over the edge, with the right to be forgotten Streisand effect' already becoming apparent.

Because it's all too easy to beat the ruling, with the "right to be forgotten" being immediately attacked by those opposed to threat of censorship in any degree. By publicising the removal of information from Google, it's near-impossible for the internet to forget anything.

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