Europe's Memory Hole Gets Ever Wider and Deeper

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 2:06 PM EDT

Yesterday I passed along the news that a BBC article about Stan O'Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch, had been removed from Google searches in Europe. Today the Guardian reports on several of its recent pieces that have been scrubbed from Google searches:

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.

....The other disappeared articles — the Guardian isn't given any reason for the deletions — are a 2011 piece on French office workers making post-it art, a 2002 piece about a solicitor facing a fraud trial standing for a seat on the Law Society's ruling body and an index of an entire week of pieces by Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade.

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.

It's a little hard to see how articles that are a mere three or four years old can be deemed "irrelevant," but in Europe, I guess that if you declare something about yourself to be irrelevant, then it is. Congratulations, EU Court of Justice!

UPDATE 1: Interestingly, it turns out that yesterday's removal of the BBC story wasn't initiated by Stan O'Neal. Apparently it was initiated by someone who left a comment on the original story. I'm actually not sure if this is better or worse.

UPDATE 2: Over at the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell argues that it's not really the ECJ that's censoring content, it's Google. But even with the caveats he includes, I think Farrell is being far too kind to the ECJ, which issued an unforgivably fuzzy decision that basically puts Google in the impossible position of being forced to act as a privacy regulator with neither the tools nor the guidance it needs to do the job properly. However, he agrees with a suggestion I made yesterday that Google might be reading the ECJ's directive over-broadly in a deliberate attempt to get everyone in a tizzy over it:

Google may have incentives to accede to [the takedown] request without complaint — and to publicize that it is so doing — because it knows that this is likely to send journalists into a frenzy. Even if the ECJ can press Google into service as an unpaid regulator, it can’t force Google to regulate in the exact ways that it would like Google to. And Google, like the Good Soldier Svejk in Jan Hasek’s novel, can perhaps interpret the court’s mandate in ways that formally stick to the rules, but in practice actually undermine it. There are, of course, other possible explanations for Google’s actions — it may be that there are excellent private reasons why Google is acceding to this request. But for sure, the controversy surrounding the request helps Google to push back (as it wants to push back) against strong interpretations of European privacy standards.

Maybe so.

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