The European “hide me, find me” SEO game that is the Right to Be Forgotten (RTBF) continues to twist and turn. The latest twist is that Google has been ordered by a UK regulator to remove links that were indexed after subsequent news articles appeared about the subject of the original RTBF de-indexing.
The Guardian has the story:
The search engine had previously removed links relating to a 10-year-old criminal offence by an individual after requests made under the right to be forgotten ruling. Removal of those links from Google’s search results for the claimant’s name spurred new news posts detailing the removals, which were then indexed by Google’s search engine.
Google refused to remove links to these later news posts, which included details of the original criminal offence, despite them forming part of search results for the claimant’s name, arguing that they are an essential part of a recent news story and in the public interest.
Now the UK Information Commissioner’s office has ordered Google to remove links that include the subject’s name and description of the underlying criminal behavior. Google has 35 days but can appeal the decision.
This particular situation gets into a very gray area. One could argue that the UK regulator is merely seeking to enforce RTBF and prevent it from being undermined by crafty media outlets. Indeed, many outlets are frustrated and angry about their content being de-indexed and often write about that including the underlying subjects of the de-indexing.
In this particular case, the follow-up articles repeated the underlying facts about the subject’s decade-old criminal record, de-indexed under RTBF. The stories appear to at least be equally about the RTBF process and controversy and used the de-indexing as an occasion to discuss the broader issue. However, I have not read the underlying articles and am drawing inferences from The Guardian’s coverage.
Were the media outlets legitimately reporting on an issue of public interest, or were they simply trying to re-establish their content in Google and “get their traffic back?” Were they being opportunistic and hoping to harness the controversy in a cynical way? Their motives could well be mixed.
Google declined to remove the second set of links because the company believed the articles were “in the public interest” and a matter of “journalistic content.” However, the Information Commissioner had a different take, asserting that it wasn’t necessary to mention the individual conviction and underlying facts to report on RTBF and the controversy surrounding it.
The UK office said, “That [public] interest can be adequately and properly met without a search made on the basis of the complainant’s name.”
The media outlets writing these follow-up stories after a RTBF de-indexing and repeating the controversial material are creating a major dilemma, as well as highlighting a fundamental problem inherent in the administration of RTBF. The UK Information Commissioner is saying, effectively, that it’s OK to write about the removal as a general matter, just don’t speak about the subject of the original removal in particular.
Again, is this appropriate enforcement of RTBF, or does it turn into a form of censorship that discourages media companies from writing or reporting on individuals who’ve successfully had their pasts scrubbed from search results? In other words, if an individual is convicted of a crime, and that crime is sufficiently “old” to have been successfully de-indexed under RTBF, will any mention that individual and his or her criminal past (even if relevant to the story) now be banned from Google search results?
That’s the clear implication here.