Google Censor 'Right To Be Forgotten' Links Backfire

John Lister's picture

A web developer has started a site which displays Google censored links, enforced by the "right to be forgotten" rules in Europe. It's another example of how such censorship rules aren't working as well as planned.

The new rules came into force earlier this year after the European Court of Justice made a final ruling in a long-running case involving Google and a Spanish man. The man wanted Google to remove a link to a news article from the 1990s about his property being repossessed.

The man said it was unfair that people who searched for his name online would see that article appear prominently in the results page, even though the news is now outdated.

Search Engines May be Forced to Hide Links

The European Court decided that people upset by content of a page must first approach the site owners and ask for it to be removed. If the site owners decline, people can then ask search engines to remove links.

Search engine companies must then make a decision based on a number of issues, such as how outdated the information is, and whether the person is a celebrity or other public figure (which carries less expectation of privacy). If the search engine company refuses to remove links, the complainant can appeal to the relevant data protection regulators in their country.

One important element of the new rules is that the material doesn't have to be illegal. It's also key to understand that the rules don't mean the webpage itself is removed from the Internet: it merely becomes harder to find in search results.

In Google's case at least, the link itself isn't getting completely deleted. Instead, it appears that specific search terms which relate to a link are being removed (such as the complainant's name). For example: if somebody searched for "Juan Doe," they may no longer see a link to a specific news article, but if the search was for "repossessions in Peseta Street," the link might still appear in search results. So far it appears Google is only censoring results from its European search sites.

Privacy Requests Can Backfire and Attract Media Attention

Some website owners affected have been better placed than others to deal with the impact. BBC journalist Robert Peston was informed by Google that the rules had affected an article he wrote back in 2007. He then wrote about the "removal" and included the relevant link, bringing much more attention to the original article. (Source:

Now, US web developer Afaq Tariq is gathering together a list of affected search terms and links. He's hoping affected site owners will tell him about other "banned" links so he can attract publicity and thus undermine the process of people getting links removed. (Source:

The situation has been likened to the "Streisand effect" in which an attempt to make something secret winds up attracting even more publicity. It's named after a case in which Barbara Streisand tried to have pictures of her home removed from a public photo collection. Before she filed a lawsuit, four members of the public had accessed the image; in the month after reporters covered the court case, 420,000 people downloaded the image.

What's Your Opinion?

Do you believe the right to privacy outweighs the right to free speech online? If you had the option available, would you ask a search engine to remove its links to a page with outdated information about you? Do you support attempts to undermine the link removal and bring more attention to the controversial pages?

Rate this article: 
Average: 4 (4 votes)


DavidFB's picture

Censorship doesn't really work in a decentralized, connected network.

I think it would useful if date posted had a higher relevancy in search results. Or at least display the page date. I often find when searching for computer issues, for example, the top loaded results are too old and thus made largely irrelevant. But you can't tell without clicking. Yet some links do have dates but thats not consistent.

The Spanish mans issue was lack of presence on the web, making the single issue highlighted.

The dominance of Google is another issue - it places too much weight on the search engine itself. Saw an example yesterday where someone used search engine results to attend an event rather than clicking through to the much more current web site about the event. They went to a random address that was 2 years old.

Search engines were never designed to be information in and of themselves.