It's the identity, stupid! Or: Google should stop whining, and start acting responsibly.

September 12, 2014

Google's right-to-be-forgotten road show is yet another aggressive step in their fight against the fundamental rights of the European citizen provided by the European Union. Ever since the ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) that Google needs to honour requests by European citizens to have certain search results removed, it has wilfully acted against the spirit of this ruling. It still shows the search results on It informs people searching that certain results have been removed. It informs websites hosting pages that their pages are no longer found using certain search terms. It honours obviously wrong requests (involving public figures the CJEU ruling explicitly excluded) and appears to reject perfectly legitimate requests.

Google consistently tries to frame this as freedom of expression being sacrificed for an obscure, unrealistic, right-to-be-forgotten. This is not the issue at hand though.

First of all, the ruling of the court is not about the right to be forgotten at all. Original web pages, to which the search results point, are not affected by the ruling. They remain online, and rightly so. It is about something else completely: it's about a right to determine how you are labelled, how you are found. If we compare Google to a phone book - if you've been a sex worker ages ago, how would you like to see your phone number and old nom-du-jour in the 18+ section of the yellow pages?

The ruling is about a person's right to construct his or her identity without unreasonable constraints or interference (my addition). In the case at hand, Google interferes with this right. Google interferes because it is the dominant search engine. Most people, when searching for a person, i.e. when getting information about the identity of the person, use Google. Google decides, using non public algorithms, which results to show for a search for a person, and in which order. It is Google who decides to dig up old facts about you and present them as the most relevant search results. Google therefore strongly influences how people perceive your identity.

The solution to this problem is not so hard as Google tries to make us believe. It may be hard on them, because it restricts them in their mission "to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful". But Google should start realising that with this mission comes a social responsibility. And that one company's mission may in fact collide with social norms in society.

The solution itself is simple enough, and the ruling points to the right direction. People that feel affected by the way Google returns search results for their person should be able to report such an interference and ask Google to fix this. This is not hard for Google to do: such a request is yet another factor in determining the relevance of a potential search result. Does this all mean Google should remove certain search results for any query that involves a particular person? Not at all. Additional search keywords express the specific information about a person someone is looking for. These are relevant and should not be ignored, I believe. In my mind there is a huge difference between looking for just a name, and Google returning links to pages about 20 year old convictions as first results, and someone specifically trying to find information about your past criminal activity. In the latter case, adding additional keywords matter, and should return the most relevant results for those keywords. Just like when you meet someone for the first time you do not expect this person to tell you all the dirt about their past, when you specifically ask them you are entitled to get an honest answer.

Like I said, Google. It's not so hard, so stop whining. Act responsibly and start taking society, and our identity in particular, seriously.

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