A new European Union law that allows citizens to request the removal of negative information about them when it turns up in online searches is in the midst of its first data deletions, which are spurring loud criticisms from content producers who argue that the practice is wrongly changing and cleansing history online.
In a July 3 story in The (London) Telegraph, Robert Peston, a BBC economics editor, fumed about the deletion of several of his blog posts under the new "right to forget" law, which was adopted in the EU in May. "Peston said received a 'notice of removal' from Google, informing him that an article that he had published in 2007 about former Merrill Lynch boss Stan O'Neal would no longer be shown in European Google search results," The Telegraph reported. "The article, 'Merrill's Mess' describes how O'Neal was forced to leave the investment bank after it endured significant losses on the back of careless investments."
By removing the posts from the searches, Peston told the paper, history has been changed and people can't learn what truly happened. "To all intents and purposes the article has been removed from the public record, given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people," Peston told the paper.
The May EU court decision set up rules that require Google and other search companies to remove outdated and harmful information about individuals that can turn up in online searches, under some conditions, according to a recent eWEEK report. To comply with the "right to forget" ruling, Google has made an online form and process available for EU residents who want to request information removals about themselves.
Only residents in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are presently eligible to use the form, according to Google.
Some 50,000 removal requests have been received so far by Google under the new rules, according to published reports.
Peston told The Telegraph that, by removing information that some people feel shows them in a bad light, the accuracy and context of history are dramatically and wrongly changed, in addition to harming the freedom of the press. "Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record—especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory (Merrill went to the brink of collapse the following year, and was rescued by Bank of America)."
That could lead to unwanted side effects, he told the paper. "So there is an argument that in removing the blog, Google is confirming the fears of many in the industry that the 'right to be forgotten' will be abused to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest."