Google began removing listings in response to the EU’s new Right To Be Forgotten mandate last week. As promised, Google is also disclosing to searchers when such removals have happened. However, it is also confusingly reporting that removals may have happened even when they have not. Welcome to Google’s new blanket notice that all name-based searches are now subject to censorship.
Notices, according to a source familiar with how Google is handling these, are supposed to appear for any non-celebrity names, when someone does a search using one of Google’s EU-specific search engines. For example, here’s one from a search at Google UK:
That’s for a search for “emily white,” which is a fairly common name in the UK. Which Emily White asked for content to be removed? There’s no way to really know. And, in fact, no Emily White may have made a request at all.
The problem with Google’s initial plan to disclose when Right To Be Forgotten removals happened is that if you’re searching for an unusual name, it makes it pretty obvious that a particular individual wanted something taken down. Then with a little homework — such as searching on Google.com where removals do NOT happen — you might be able to “remember” what Google was supposed to forget.
Enter the blanket notice. Our source says that Google is trying to avoid singling out any individual, so by putting notices for all names, that’s prevented.
Of course, what’s also avoided is Google’s original goal. That was to indicated, as it does with other types of searches, when a particular set of listings has been censored. Under this new system, Google’s basically informing anyone doing a search for a name that some content was or may have have been removed.
Google itself, which wouldn’t comment about the notices, does at least explain that they’re happening in cases where no removals actually happen on its FAQ page:
When you search for a name, you may see a notice that says that results may have been modified in accordance with data protection law in Europe. We’re showing this notice in Europe when a user searches for most names, not just pages that have been affected by a removal.
There are plenty of names you can try right now where the notice does not come up. Why not? Because it’s still early. Our source says Google’s building out a database of what it considers to be “names” and plans to trigger these notices for all of those. But that database won’t likely ever be perfect, so there will be some names where a search doesn’t generate a notice.
When it comes to celebrity names, you won’t see the notice, our source says. Why not? As best I can tell, it’s sort of a reverse situation. With non-celebrities, showing a disclosure means no one gets singled out. But with celebrities, showing a disclosure makes it easier to guess they might have asked for something to be removed.
But to make things even more confusing, consider the case of Max Mosley. If you search for his name right now on Google UK, you do get disclosure. Twice, in fact:
Mosley has won court cases in France and Germany to have Google drop links to pictures of him at a sex orgy, not through the Right To Be Forgotten ruling. In fact, Mosley was interviewed recently by The Independent saying his lawyers are now looking at whether to make use of that new option.
So why’s the second notice, relating to the Right To Be Forgotten appearing? Maybe Mosley isn’t considered celebrity enough. Maybe “Max Mosley” is also considered a common enough name for the blanket statement. Or maybe it’s just all part of the general mess the disclosures are now becoming.
As for the other notice, that’s easier to understand. The link in it leads to a page at Chilling Effects, that explains someone obtained a court order in the UK for links to be removed.
In the short term, perhaps these notices might raise awareness to some in the EU that censorship of this nature is now happening. But in the long term, I suspect they’ll just get ignored — which raises the question of whether Google should even bother with them at all.