Recently, a European ruling gave people the right to privacy in so far as website searches are concerned. If someone writes something about you, you can tell Google to ignore it.

The original article is still there on the original website, but no longer as easy to find.

I have over the years written about people, who are usually involved in some sort of legal difficulties, and over the years had requests to remove the story as it is proving difficult for them to find work when potential employers carry out web searches.

I find myself conflicted about this.

I am no paragon of virtue myself, and have considerable sympathy for people who find that actions in the past continue to haunt them as they seek to repair a life once shattered. However, as a pseudo-journalist, I had a job to do, which was to write up lawsuits and prosecutions when they are news worthy.

Then along came search engines, and what would once have required a trip to the local newspaper to read their archive in person can do be achieved by a few clicks of a mouse.

All that has changed in that stance over the past 200 years is that it is now much easier to trawl through a newspaper archive to see if a person has a shady past than it once was.

So, while a bit uncomfortable about some aspects of the European ruling, that it applies only to the search engines, and not to the publications themselves is a sensible compromise. I can still go to The Times website and use their own search engine to search their archive. It’s a slightly slower process to check two dozen news websites individually than one Google, but quite manageable.

As a researcher, I am used to firing searches into dozens of websites already. Google doesn’t have everything!

Also, as employers get used to the new privacy regime, they might well find that there are employment agencies who will carry out searches on newspapers and blogs on behalf of the recruiter to check if there is anything about the potential recruit that might have been blocked from Google.

I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if someone write an automatic tool to search dozens of newspapers for you and show up those that return a positive result.

Where a rule exists, someone will find a way around it.

I am writing about this today as I have had yet another request from a person, a formerly highly ranked executive at a very large firm who sued a motorist following a road accident.

The person wanted a lot of money in compensation for claimed brain damage and depression. The judge agreed that the person had suffered, but limited the payout to a tenth of the amount claimed. Still a very large sum of money, but the payout was limited as the person was still of above average intelligence following the accident.

In fact, the issue set legal precedent about accident compensation claims, and as such was very widely reported in the news, and has a dedicated page on Wikipedia about the court ruling.

The person concerned has sent the latest in a string of requests to have the article, written in 2007 removed from the website. They cited the European ruling, which does not actually apply to the publication.

More troubling to me though, they hold an opinion that because online content can be removed with a click of a mouse by the publisher, that there is nothing wrong with asking for such a thing to be done.

How would The Times have reacted in 1982 if they had been told to remove a news story? Would they have recalled every copy of the paper and burnt them? Send out a notice to readers to cut out the offending article and destroy it?

Just because something is online does not mean that it is more amenable to removal than a print version of the same article. Yet people behave as if online is less tangible, less important, less vital to the long term history of society.

How will the historians of the future research the past, if entire swathes of news was censored out of existence by the later requests of the embarrassed individuals concerned?

I am sure the person in this situation will have filed in a form on the Google website asking that all reference to their court case be expunged from easy access, but it will live on in Wikipedia and numerous other national newspaper archives.

That is an acceptable outcome in this case, but I am still troubled by the attitude that online is less tangible than offline as far as reporting the news is concerned. Surely the method of publication shouldn’t matter? Yet it does. Odd, and worrying.

Ironically, my own article about the case doesn’t show up in Google until you get to the fourth page of the search results, which pretty much means it doesn’t exist as far as the average person is concerned.


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One comment
  1. Kevin says:

    You can ask. Doesn’t mean they will get rid of them for the very reasons you mention.

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