Remembering to forget?

Are people requesting to be 'forgotten' by Google actually making themselves more memorable?

It seems that this week was the day when Google actually started implementing the controversial “right to be forgotten” ruling. According to the Mail Online, users will see the following when they input keywords that would ordinarily return certain pages, but which now have these pages removed due to a request from an individual concerned.

Screenshot of Google Search results with some pages removed

A Robert Peston blog on the BBC website from 2007 about the former CEO of Merrill Lynch has been removed from search results suggesting that Google is erring on the side of caution by complying with every request, regardless of questions of public interest. This is hardly surprising when the company claims to have received over 50,000 requests to be forgotten since the original ruling in the European Court of Human Rights. However, the search engine made clear that this is an ongoing process.

It is also worth noting that, under the ruling, Google cannot publish the names of the people making the request or the reason why it has been granted. It is therefore impossible to infer with absolute certainty that the main subject of an article has asked for its removal, unless there are absolutely no other parties mentioned in the article or anywhere else on the page.

The interesting, amusing, and unintended side-effect has been that the articles people have requested be “forgotten” (i.e. removed from Google search results) have become newsworthy again, giving journalists cause to recapitulate the original reporting thereby immediately making people “unforgotten” again. Undoubtedly this will only last as long as there is news interest in the story. However, the even more interesting question is whether such new articles reporting the request to be forgotten will come under the same ruling, or whether applicants will have to wait until they become irrelevant to make a further request to have them delisted.

Media organisations are in an unusual position with regard to the ruling. They are under no obligation to remove the articles but 44% of news traffic referrals come from Google alone according to analytics firm and this figure is likely to be far higher for archive material.

Nonetheless, users are increasingly using social and other platforms to access news and these are not subject to the ruling. People who feel passionate about the issues may artificially try to ensure applicants are not forgotten by reposting articles and continuing to talk about individuals on social media.  As many celebrities learnt to their cost with superinjunctions, this strategy can very easily backfire.

The chart below shows the number of mentions on social platforms of Scottish former referee Dougie McDonald and former Meril Lynch chief Stan O’Neal, who had otherwise lived in relative obscurity, until it was revealed that requests had been made to remove articles about them from search results. To misquote Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about is to ask people not to talk about you at all!

Radian6 search of people mentioned in articles which have been requested to be removed under the right to forget ruling 

H+K Admin

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search