BY GLYN MOODY
The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ordered Google to remove links from its search results that point to news stories reporting on earlier removals of links from its search results. The nine further results that must be removed point to Web pages with details about the links relating to a criminal offence that were removed by Google following a request from the individual concerned. The Web pages involved in the latest ICO order repeated details of the original criminal offence, which were then included in the results displayed when searching for the complainant’s name on Google.
Understandably, Google is not very happy about this escalation of the EU’s so-called “right to be forgotten“—strictly speaking, a right to have certain kinds of information removed from search engine results. According to the ICO press release on the new order, Google has refused to remove the later links from its search results: “It argued these links were to articles that concerned one of its decisions to delist a search result and that the articles were an essential part of a recent news story relating to a matter of significant public importance.” The ICO “recognises that journalistic content relating to decisions to delist search results may be newsworthy and in the public interest.” Nonetheless, it decided that including links to the news stories has “an unwarranted and negative impact on the individual’s privacy and is a breach of the Data Protection Act,” and that they must be removed.
Google has 35 days to comply with the enforcement notice. If it does not, it faces financial sanctions, which can be significant. A few weeks ago, the ICO issued a £180,000 civil monetary penalty to The Money Shop following the loss of customer details when a server was stolen. Ignoring an ICO enforcement notice is even more serious. Failure to comply is a criminal offence, which can be tried at a Magistrate’s Court, where unlimited fines can be imposed, the ICO told Ars in an e-mail. Google can, however, appeal against the order to the Information Tribunal, part of a fairly obscure aspect of the UK’s court system called the General Regulatory Chamber.
One obvious question about this kind of recursive request is whether it is recursive itself—in other words, whether news stories that report on this latest removal including details of the criminal offence will also face de-listing from Google’s search results. That seems likely. (But obviously, if this story suddenly disappears, you know what happened…) Another issue concerns the status of pages that media organisations have set up listing the news stories that have been removed from Google’s results, for example those from The Telegraph and the BBC, some of which contain details from the de-listed stories.
The latest development seems to confirm fears that the “right to be forgotten” would become a mechanism for censoring perfectly legal information and Web pages. That’s because any article mentioning the contested information in any form or in any context now faces the prospect of being consigned to online oblivion—in the EU at least.