The European ruling on an individual’s “right” to exclude some links from his/her search results was issued a few days ago and it’s still bothering me. The excellent analysis on Harvard’s legal blog did a good job expressing some of the absurdities and contradictions of this ruling.
This isn’t a case of the search engines breaking a law. That would have been an easier ruling to digest. This is a case where a particular court made a decision based on a few specific cases that happens to have an incredibly wide influence beyond the walls of the courthouse. The court ruled that “individuals should have a shot at insisting that Google and other search engines remove certain search results found upon a search for their names, not because they are false, or infringe copyright, but because they violate a “respect for private life” or a “right to protection of personal data.”
The big surprise for me is the shift in responsibility. The plaintiff built his case on a document that was rightly accessible to the public and was shared on a website. He was not complaining that the document was accessible on the internet but that the search engine (Google in this case) was linking to it as a top result whenever his name was matched. I was blown away that it is the search engines are being held responsible for linking to content that is publicly available and legally viable.
One of the many factors in the search algorithm is relevance. Search engines crawl the entire crawl-able web and index every page they find. When a user enters a query, they use their secret algorithm to determine which results are the ones most relevant to the query and how to deliver the best results possible, ranked from best to not-quite-as-good. The quality of the search engine is judged by how relevant the results are to the query. A user will use the search engine again and again if it delivers results it finds relevant. Google has gotten so good at this that almost all users find the results they need on the first page.
Trying to imagine what kind of manipulations Google will have to do now to exclude links all point in one direction: muddling the results. Google says the decision on what results to display is based on “over 200 factors” including what they call the “Site and Page Quality,” the “Freshness,” “SafeSearch” parameters and “User Context.” Where could the manipulations fit in? And how can these changes be made without degrading the search experience for other queries?
A few ruminations:
How will Google verify the name of the person in the query? There may only be one or two humans with the plaintiff’s name Mario Costeja González but try finding a rule or context for a name like “James Smith.”
How will Google decide if the content the user asks to remove fits under the court’s guidelines of “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant?” It seems extremely subjective. In fact, in today’s algorithm Google already considers “freshness” as a factor for what result to display so if it chooses to display a very old result it must mean that the other factors (such as relevance to the query) are very strong.
How can Google even create a process that balances the rights of individuals vs the rights of users looking for objective results? Yes, an “ancient” bankruptcy filing may be harmful to the person in the query but since it’s public information, doesn’t the searcher “deserve” to find it? And what defines “ancient?” Can this process even be automated or will it always require human intervention?
What if other people are named in that document that don’t want it removed from the response to a query about another person? In fact, what if other people will be harmed if that document is removed?
Finally, why is this discussion even placed at Google’s door? The offending document is on a web site not owned by Google. Why not petition that website to remove it? And if that website is within the law to make that information public, how can Google be held responsible for linking to it??
In any case, this ruling raises so many questions on net censorship and individual rights. The implementation dilemmas are just a small part of this debate. I look forward to following the appeal.