When we first pointed out the role of Google in potential censorship eighteen months back (check “Google Censorship: Scariest Thing for Academic Freedom”), everyone argued that nothing like that could happen. A few months later, bioinformatician C. Titus Brown called us ‘insanely ignorant of internet realities’ for re-expressing similar views. These days, slowly but surely everyone is realizing the power of Google in shaping the past and future.
A recent ruling by EU court establishes a new fundamental right -‘right to be forgotten’. Within the first four hours of establishment of this new ruling, 40,000 censorship requests came to Google and they took action. One of the results is the following, as pointed out by Guardian and Mish -
[Following] a European court ruling that individuals had the right to remove material about themselves from search engine results, arrived in the Guardian’s inbox this morning, in the form of an automated notification that six Guardian articles have been scrubbed from search results.
Three of the articles, dating from 2010, relate to a now-retired Scottish Premier League referee, Dougie McDonald, who was found to have lied about his reasons for granting a penalty in a Celtic v Dundee United match, the backlash to which prompted his resignation.
Anyone entering the fairly obvious search term “Dougie McDonald Guardian” into google.com the US version of Google will see three Guardian articles about the incident as their first results. Type the exact same phrase into Google.co.uk, however, and the articles have vanished entirely. McDonald’s record is swept clean.
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. The strange aspect of the ruling is all the content is still there: if you click the links in this article, you can read all the “disappeared” stories on this site. No one has suggested the stories weren’t true, fair or accurate. But still they are made hard for anyone to find.
There might be a case for saying some stories should vanish from the archives: what about, say, someone who committed a petty crime at 18, who long since reformed and cleaned up their act? If at the age of 30 they’re finding that their search history is still preventing them getting a job, couldn’t they make the case that it’s time for their record to be forgotten? Perhaps it’s a matter of debate. But such editorial calls surely belong with publishers, not Google.
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. 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.
Publishers can and should do more to fight back. One route may be legal action. Others may be looking for search tools and engines outside the EU. Quicker than that is a direct innovation: how about any time a news outlet gets a notification, it tweets a link to the article that’s just been disappeared. Would you follow @GdnVanished?
If the internet searches are politicized, that is equivalent to censorship. Will the same search keywords now yield widely different results in every country, depending on the political preferences of the government or the oligarchs?
Others are also discovering the monopoly power of Google in affecting their existence. For example, leading social and financial blog NakedCapitalism complained -
Naked Capitalism is on the receiving end of a nasty bit of synchronicity. Readers may recall that we wrote last week about the role that monopolies and oligopolies play in reducing competitiveness and promoting inequality. Oligopolies and monopolies are a classic example of rent extraction, where the incumbents can distort pricing due to their outsized position. The end result is less competitive products (dominant players dont need to reinvest since their customers lack good options) and a transfer from customers to providers. We discussed a few examples of monopolists and oligopolists, but one we neglected to mention was Google.