Now we can see where the right to be forgotten leads, and it’s not good

Stories are being de-listed from Google that the public should be allowed to know about

I can think of plenty of things from my past I’d like to forget and have deleted from history, though fortunately none of them seem to have an internet afterlife. But my transgressions are petty compared to some of those which could now be removed from search engines thanks to the recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that Google and its rivals are responsible for the content they carry, and must consider requests to have material taken down if it’s “no longer relevant”.

Although I use it dozens of times every day, I can’t say I’m Google’s biggest fan: too big, too powerful, too ambitious – too dangerous. However, it is the search engine of choice for billions of people, and it’s clearly here to stay, so it’s in all our interests to make sure it’s as utilitarian as possible.

So I’m not surprised that the BBC’s Business Editor, Robert Peston, is incandescent. All that hard work he put in seven years ago to report and comment on the forced resignation of financier Stan O’Neal from Merrill Lynch, and now Google is attempting to wipe it from history, telling the BBC that Peston’s 2007 blog on O’Neal will no longer be available in Europe. O’Neal will, presumably be happy he now has the “right to be forgotten”.

O’Neal (who was colourfully described in the New York Times magazine as one of the “feckless dolts” who precipitated the global financial crisis ) may not be behind the decision – Peston speculated that Google’s notification may be to do with one of the comments posted below the article – but it’s a potentially disastrous development all the same. Except for those with something to hide.

Google’s CEO Larry Page was unsurprisingly critical of the ruling. “It will be used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things,” he said. “Other people are going to pile on, probably, for reasons most Europeans would find negative.” His response comes into the “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” category, but he’s right.

The ECJ ruling is surely fatuous, anyway. Peston complained about being “cast into oblivion”, but as he pointed out himself on the Today programme, you only need to type in www.google.com/ncr to get round any regional restrictions. I’m reminded of the Spycatcher controversy. Peter Wright’s book was banned in Britain but none the less nestled on many a shelf, mine included, thanks to chums abroad, where British law had no jurisdiction, buying copies and posting them to Blighty.

And what could the Court do if Google simply refused? It can ultimately level financial penalties against member states, but against a multi-national behemoth?

Other de-listed stories so far include one about a Scottish referee who was found to have lied about why he gave a penalty (personal integrity is surely “relevant” to refereeing); a couple prosecuted for having sex on a train (I can’t think of a public-interest defence for that one, but it’s quite funny, and should stay online for that reason alone); and an airline accused of racism when hiring people (also in the public interest, I’d say). None of these are earth-shattering stories, but that’s only the start – there have been more than 50,000 deletion requests so far. What happens when politicians with things to hide get in on the act? Or RUssian gangsters, or paedophiles?

Google should take a good look at their original mission statement, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and their original, celebrated motto, “don’t do evil.” Not doing evil, I’d contend, includes standing up to anyone - even the European Court of Justice – who seeks to give wrongdoers the succour of wiping their misdeeds from digital history. Google et al should, in short, tell the European Court of Justice to take the proverbial running jump.

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