Fallout from the European Union’s recent decision to give individuals the ability to petition Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) to remove unflattering search results connected to their names has begun, with journalists decrying the practice as an impediment to media freedom.
In a report published Wednesday, the Guardian revealed that it had received notifications indicating that six of the British newspaper’s articles would be stricken from Google search results for European Internet users. The ruling does not affect Internet users in the rest of the world, only scrubbing the search results obtained in the 28 EU countries as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, which are not EU members.
Three of the notices concern Dougie McDonald, a now-retired Scottish Premier League soccer referee who was discovered to have lied about his reasons for calling a penalty in a 2010 Celtic vs. Dundee United game. The Guardian included screenshots of the search results obtained from the U.S. compared to results from the United Kingdom, with American users able to find unflattering stories about McDonald that their U.K. counterparts would not.
The polarizing EU decision was made in May, when it was ruled that Europeans have the right to ask Google to remove any links with “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information about them be removed from the available results. Google is required to assess whether removing the results adversely affects the public interest and, when results have been removed, attaches a note at the bottom of the first page of results stating, “Some results may have been removed under a data protection law in Europe.”
The law has been praised and deplored, with privacy advocates saying it will protect vulnerable Europeans and others saying the public has a right to know any public information. Concerns have also been raised that wealthy individuals will abuse the process, hiring questionable reputation-defending companies to scrub their results for them.
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“The Guardian has no form of appeal against parts of its journalism being made all but impossible for most of Europe’s 368 million to find,” wrote Guardian journalist James Ball. “The strange aspect of the ruling is that all the content is still there. … No one has suggested the stories weren’t true, fair or accurate. But still they are made hard for anyone to find.”
The other articles removed from the site include a 2011 piece about office workers making post-it art and a 2002 news story about a solicitor (lawyer) standing trial for tax fraud.
Options for the Guardian and other respected European news outlets are few. A potential long-term solution is to wait for evidence that the decision is actually facilitating dangerous activity by removing results about suspected criminals, for instance, and to use that to lobby the EU to reverse its decision. Otherwise the media have no choice but to hope that readers find their sites via social media or other search engines.
In the meantime, Ball wrote, there’s no other choice but to wait.
“The Guardian, like the rest of the media, regularly writes about things people have done which might not be illegal but raise serious political, moral or ethical questions – tax avoidance, for example,” he explained. “These should not be allowed to disappear: To do so is a huge, if indirect, challenge to press freedom. The ruling has created a stopwatch on free expression – our journalism can be found only until someone asks for it to be hidden.”