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Motherboard

The Streisand Effect of Google Forget

News stories "forgotten" from Google search results are only attracting more attention to themselves.

by Victoria Turk
Jul 3 2014, 12:40pm
Image: Shutterstock

Google’s compliance with EU “right to be forgotten” rules, the controversial law that allows individuals to request the removal of links from the search engine, is starting to come into play. At the same time, it’s revealing how trying to make people forget you all too often has the exact opposite effect.

Various outlets noticed links had been removed from certain search queries yesterday. James Ball at The Guardian wrote that the publication received automated emails from Google yesterday morning, notifying them that six of their articles had been removed from search results. Economics editor Robert Peston at the BBC wrote that he received the same notification for a piece he had written seven years ago.

Both outlets went on to publish stories about the “forgotten” articles. Which, of course, only made everyone remember them more. Even if you didn’t know about the stories in question beforehand, which their subjects clearly found embarrassing enough to demand a takedown, you do now. It’s a classic example of the Streisand effect: too much effort to detract attention from something only leads to greater awareness and scrutiny.

Peston wrote that his blog on former Merrill Lynch boss Stan O’Neal’s departure from the firm amid its collapse had been removed from some searches. Ball reported that three of the scrubbed Guardian articles included three about a controversy involving Scottish Premier League Dougie McDonald’s, a piece about solicitor Paul Baxendale-Walker facing allegations of fraud, and more bizarrely, the index page of a week’s worth of articles by one of the paper’s columnists. The last was an article about French office workers making art out of post-it notes

It’s important to remember that the buck doesn’t really stop with Google for the takedowns—they opposed the European ruling but lost. The search giant didn’t reveal the reasons why these links were removed, though it seems clear the most likely basis for people wanting the links removed is reputation management. Though I, for one, am not sure what’s so bad about the post-it note art. 

The plot thickens a little with the Merrill Lynch column, which Peston wrote still shows up in searches for Stan O’Neal—the only person mentioned by name in the piece—which he concludes suggests O’Neal might not have been behind the removal request. 

In any case, I’m betting all the names above didn’t mean much to you (and I doubt many readers would have recalled the great French post-it art debacle of 2011) if no one had requested the links be “forgotten.”  Asking for their removal only renews interest in the story, and as Google only removes the search results, not the pages themselves, traffic to the articles in question no doubt rebounded with vigour since yesterday thanks to pesky journalists calling attention to them with a convenient hyperlink.

Perhaps those who made the requests could go on to request that the subsequent articles about the removed links also vanish? I can envisage subjects and publishers chasing each other’s tales in a continuous loop of scrubbed links versus renewed coverage—though maybe those requesting removals may find themselves trapped in a Catch-22 at this point, as the search engine is only obliged to stop showing pages in response to certain searches if the information is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” Does the new interest—about the disappearance of the page from search results—ironically make the story newly relevant?

The interest in these requests will of course deflate over time. Google told City AM today that it had received 50,000 requests since the ruling, and people will soon tire of writing stories about each and every one that is honoured.

But the whole mess shows that there are clearly still creases to iron out in how the ruling is executed, and it continues to face vigorous opposition. Over at Forbes, Kashmir Hill observed that European Google searches for pretty much every name appear with the disclaimer that, “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe,” even if that individual hasn’t made any requests (I haven’t, and the notice appears if you search my name on google.co.uk). 

The point is that you’re not supposed to know who has made requests for information to be removed, as the EU said it wasn’t in the spirit of the ruling to put a great big stamp on anyone’s search results that were censored. 

But even if Google doesn’t, you can bet that someone will. This is the Internet, after all. The stories about individual cases may quickly die out as the news interest flounders, but I’d be surprised if there isn’t a free speech enthusiast out there coming up with a way to collate all the missing search results. 

Ball, for instance, suggested that news outlets rebel against the ruling by posting links to any “disappeared” articles on Twitter. His proposed @gdnvanished account has already been made, though it’s unclear who’s behind it.

Despite the unprecedented ruling, the old wisdom still holds true: Once it’s on the Internet, there’s no taking it back.