Is ECJ search removal ruling being abused to kill good journalism?
When the European Court of Justice ruled that search engine providers must offer a way for individuals to effectively prevent articles or online activities about themselves from being found, it was easy to find the positives in such a move.
Few of us want to be reminded just how stupid we were in youth as we grow older and, supposedly, wiser. And withdrawing the ability to find offending content through search engines is as good as removing the article in the first place, as it essentially makes it impossible to search for.
However, as the BBC's Robert Preston has found to his cost, the same system can also hamper good and honest journalism.
In 2007, he wrote a piece about the colossal losses made by investment bank Merrill Lynch - a decent slice of content which, when read today, serves as a historical explanation of a certain event. However, yesterday Google served notice of removal of the article from its search pages.
"Notice of removal from Google Search: we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google," it wrote, before adding the link to the piece.
There was no explanation as to why the piece was to be removed, bar the fact that it is in direct response to the ECJ ruling. That means someone mentioned has requested the article be removed from Google and therefore be almost impossible to stumble across. Preston claims that it will be "to all intents and purposes... removed from the public record".
The only person mentioned in the posting itself is Stan O'Neal, the former boss of Merrill Lynch. But as his name still turns up in searches attached to the article, Preston surmises that it must have been one of the commenters underneath that requested it be removed.
It sets a dangerous precedent. A theoretically important piece of journalism could therefore be removed from the public record simply because somebody once said something they later regret in response. Is that fair? And does that mean that news sources and websites, such as the BBC or Pocket-lint even, should scrap the comments box underneath articles?
"We’re surprised that this is the outcome of the ECJ ruling and concerned at the implications of the removal from search of this type of material," a BBC spokesman told us in an email. We agree.
We happen to believe that interaction with readers and allowing reader response to what we write is one of the things that makes internet journalism so vibrant and exciting. Immediate response to our musings is vital for our understanding of what readers want. It is not something we are willing to forego, but surely Google and other search providers have to exercise more common sense in such situations.
For example, should somebody want their comment removed from a story on Pocket-lint, they should come to Pocket-lint and ask us. Or, maybe Google could inform us first and we'll remove it. That way everybody wins. But no, that would be too easy. Too easy by far.
Let us know what you think in the comments underneath. Just don't contact Google in five or so years time asking for the whole article to be removed. Please.