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You'll be shocked by what happened when we tested Google's 'right to be forgotten' tool

James Temperton
4 Jul 2014
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We adventure down the Google hole to see what happens when someone tries to vanish themselves from search results

Google's right to be forgotten system is woefully inadequate and censoring things it shouldn't. We decided to make a number of right to be forgotten claims to see what would happen. One request was to remove search listings for an automated online profile page that contained someone's name and Twitter handle. There are loads of websites that collate information about people and spew out automated profiles – 192.com and Peekyou.com being two examples.

These websites might be annoying, but should they ever be censored from search results if all they are doing is collating publicly available information?

None of the information contained on the page Google has censored from its search results was "irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise objectionable". It contained a name, a Twitter handle, a website link and not much else.

Quite why Google believed this page should be removed from search results for a specific name is beyond us. It is once again raises concerns that the company is not applying the new law correctly and is over-censoring to make a point.

So, what's going on with Google? Here are some important things to consider.

Removal requests are confusing and specific

Journalists and news organisations are making a song and dance about articles being "cast into oblivion" but that isn't the case.

Google contacted the BBC's Robert Peston to inform him that an article about Stan O'Neal, the former boss of bank Merrill Lynch, was being removed from certain search listings. Peston wrongly assumed that it was O'Neal himself who had requested the article be removed from Google.

The truth is rather less sensational. The removal request came from one of the people who commented on the article. That means a search for Stan O'Neal will still show the BBC article but a search for one of the people named below the line will not.

Nobody knows why articles are being vanished

Google isn't allowed to disclose why specific search results are being removed or who made the removal request. This makes it hard to determine what degree of censorship is taking place.

The BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail have all reported that some of their pages have been removed from Google, but this will only be under very specific search terms for one specific name.

This muddies the waters as to exactly who is trying to hide what. While the censorship will always be for searches relating to a specific name, the who or why won't always be clear.

Google is being deliberately useless

There have been suggestions that Google is intentionally over-censoring by approving nearly all right to be forgotten requests. The search giant has made no secret of its distaste for the new EU law and its handling of requests has been called into question.

Peter Barron, Google's director of communications in Europe has said the company is going through a "learning process" with the right to be forgotten ruling. Accusations have been levelled at Google that it is being too hasty to remove links in an attempt to make a mockery of the judgement. The company denies such claims.

"We are committed to doing it as responsibly as we possibly can. We are learning as we go. I'm sure we will get better at it and we are very keen to listen to the feedback," Barron told the BBC's Today programme.

You can still find the articles on Bing and Google.com

The EU's right to be forgotten law is only being aimed at Google and only applies in the EU. That means that you can view uncensored search results on rival search engines such as Bing or by forcing your search through Google.com (to be sure you're using the US version of Google go to www.google.co.uk and click on 'Use Google.com' in the bottom right corner).

Alternatively you can use Google's no country results service – go to www.google.com/ncr. All these methods work even if you're in a EU country as the search results are only removed from local versions of Google such as www.google.co.uk, www.google.fr and www.google.de.

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