Google’s Webmaster Tools service sent me two emails on Wednesday morning. This isn't unusual for me (I'm head of search engine optimisation at the Guardian) but the subject line was entirely new: 'Notice of removal from Google Search’.
The emails detailed six links that had been removed from Google's search results, three clearly related to a specific individual and three rather more complex and disparate ones.
The search engine regretted to inform me that it was 'no longer able to show the pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google.’ At that point I suspected I might have a busy day.
What I didn’t expect was the level of misunderstanding and misrepresentation - not only in general but also from journalists and industry experts. The implications and execution of these removals is fairly complicated, but it astounded me how much of the discussion – even off the back of clear and incisive commentary from James Ball on Wednesday – was characterised by a lazy refusal to engage with what’s actually happening.
So here are a few points to remember:
• Google isn’t asking anyone to remove anythingOne of the tweets that drove the most page views to James’ piece was from a journalist. It said "Amazing – Guardian receiving requests to take down three articles relating to Dougie McDonald.” That would be an amazing story. But it didn’t happen.
• No one has been cast into oblivion, especially Robert Peston
I’m a fan of Peston, but his piece on his own right-to-be-forgotten notice was misleading in many ways, and that’s particularly important considering his broad following and the trust people place in him. He kicks straight off with a sentence that simply isn’t true: "A blog I wrote in 2007 will no longer be findable when searching on Google in Europe".
This is a shame because it muddies the waters around his commentary on public interest.
• It’s all in the name
Google is not deleting articles from its ecosystem. Peston is right to state that most people will come to this kind of older content through Google, but he’s very wrong to frame that as "killing" his journalism. What’s happening is that Google will no longer return the article complained about for a search on the complainant’s name.
We don’t know who the complainants are because Google won’t tell us, so that means the best way of finding out the identity of the complainant is by searching for the person’s name on the relevant domain and seeing if it fails to return the article. If so, you’ve found your complainant.
A search for “Dougie McDonald” site:the guardian.com (the quotes ensure the search engine looks for the full name) doesn’t return this right-to-be-forgotten article. But search for Scottish referee who lied and you’ll see it.
If this is brand management, it’s a very leaky form of it. One of the things we’ve already learned is that you can’t always assume who the complainant is. This one is particularly interesting in that respect; it turns out that finding out who wants to be forgotten is a pretty compelling activity.
• The internet isn’t a place
Google is manipulating search results like this only in the domains affected by the EU ruling. But a web domain isn’t the same thing as a place. So anyone in the EU can carry out the same searches on Google.com and happily enjoy search results without interference. There are many, many other ways around it, outlined here.
• The inconsistencies are almost certainly no accident
Cleverer people than me have framed the background to Google’s behaviour already, but it’s worth stating again that all of the obvious idiocy in the implementation suggests at the least that Google is far from whole-heartedly embracing the ECJ ruling.
The notices so many of us received yesterday and the blanket notice that all name-based searches in the EU are now subject to censorship make it look more like a mischievous attempt to point up the impossibility of policing content on the internet within physical territories, enraging publishers and encouraging them to write about it.
The digital ecosystem is a complicated one. And it goes without saying that privacy and freedom of expression are incredibly important issues. But that’s what makes it all the more essential that when discussing this issue, journalists in particular are clear about the implications and precise with their language, even if that makes the story less "amazing".
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