The EU’s “Right to Be Forgotten” Is Already Censoring the Internet

Analyzing the top news stories across the web
July 3 2014 12:32 PM

Google Is Being Forced to Censor the History of Merrill Lynch

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Former Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O'Neal.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

The European Union’s new law giving people a “right to be forgotten,” which requires Google to remove links to information about them, is having exactly the effect its critics predicted: It is censoring the Internet, giving new tools that help the rich and powerful (and ordinary folk) hide negative information about them, and letting criminals make their histories disappear.

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Exhibit A: Google was required to delete a link to this BBC article about Stan O’Neal, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch. O’Neal led the bank in the mid-2000s, a period when it became dangerously overexposed to the looming mortgage crisis. When the crisis hit, Merrill’s losses were so great the bank had to be sold to Bank of America. O’Neal lost his job, but he exited with a $161.5 million golden parachute.

There is nothing incorrect in the post, in fact it’s a rather mild account of O’Neal’s incompetence during the period. O’Neal was forced out of the company after he began discussing selling it without informing his board of directors. This is ancient, well-established history. Having it removed from Google doesn’t undo the fact that it happened. But there is a new generation of 25-year-old investment bankers who perhaps do not have a firm grasp of the 2007 crisis that reshaped banking globally. Their grasp will be ever more slightly weaker due to this new law.

“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,” BBC writer Robert Peston says.

Six links to stories in the Guardian not related to O’Neal have also been removed.

Also, Business Insider previously noted that deletion requests were granted for a former politician who wanted to remove links to a news article about his behavior when previously in office—so that he can have a clean slate when running for a new position—and for a man who was convicted of possessing child sexual abuse imagery.

So pedophiles can take advantage of this law as well. 

Forget.me, a company that expedites Google deletion requests, tells Business Insider that it is fielding 250 requests per day. Here’s a breakdown of what is being deleted from the world’s greatest search engine:

140703_BI_ForgetMeRequests

Courtesy of Forget.me

It’s exactly like the “memory holes” in George Orwell’s 1984, in which Big Brother’s minions burn information that the government wants people to forget.

But the E.U. law is terrifying for another reason: The entire process is so nontransparent that the consequence for the individual is even worse than what the courts intended.

This excellent discussion from Danny Sullivan at MarketingLand.com shows that even when Google removes links, new ones pop up in their place. And Europeans can get the full, uncensored internet by leaving Google.co.uk and searching at Google.com.

Here’s a U.K. search result for the Stan O’Neal article:

140703_BI_GoogleSearchScreenshot1

Courtesy of MarketingLand.com

(Note the disclosure from Google that its results have been censored.)

Sullivan then searched for the name of the first commenter on the article and got this:

140702_BI_GoogleSearchScreenshot2

Courtesy of MarketingLand.com

We don’t know whether it was O’Neal who asked that the link be removed. In fact, O’Neal’s name may be being dragged through the mud unnecessarily here. Peston believes it may be someone mentioned by readers in the comments section under his story about the ruling. 

He suggests that as a “Peter Dragomer” search triggers the same disclosure that a result may have been censored, that perhaps it was not O’Neal who requested the deletion. In an amazing coincidence, the person posting as “Peter Dragomer” claims to be an ex-Merrill employee.

Right now, thousands of people probably think that Stan O’Neal is on some quixotic quest to make people forget that he was at the wheel when Merrill drove off a cliff. And there is no evidence that that’s the case.

But because the law exists, we have no idea what the truth is.

That ought to worry everyone.

Jim Edwards is a deputy editor at Business Insider. Follow him on Twitter.

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