Google: Protecting Privacy or Engaging in Censorship?

Eileen Meng Lu  |

After the European Union Court ruled in May that European residents could request that Google (GOOG) remove links to “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” personal information, the world’s most dominant search engine complied and uploaded a request form. But they have held an ambiguous attitude since, saying the ruling could curb freedom of expression. Its recent attempt to comply with the law by removing legitimate, journalistic articles in July has caused both Google and the law itself to run into a barrage of criticism.

The battle between an individual’s right to protect their privacy and the public’s interest to know have also aroused heated discussion in the US. On July 11, Google admitted the difficulty in dealing with the controversy, and further announced the full complement of experts on its established Advisory Council to help navigate the decision to remove links.

The Right... to Be Forgotten

Before the digital age, rumors or misbehaviors could easily fade and be forgotten after years. Information was stored on paper and was not easily searchable. Now search engines like Google make previously buried information readily available. In the European Union Court case, googling the name of a Spanish man pulled up news stories from as far back as 1998 reporting his old social security debts, which had been settled long since.

Even if personal blemishes are corrected, the records of the internet remain. This kind of outdated information can negatively impact a person years after the fact. In the Spanish man’s case, older debt information could have affected his chance to apply for loan, even fifteen years later.

Considering that search operators were held responsible for processing and detecting searching requests, the court gave the job of cleaning up the past to search providers like Google. By May 30, four days after the court’s decision, Google had received more than 41,000 requests for information deletion. By June 30 they had received more than 70,000 requests for the removal of over 260,000 web pages.

What Deserves to Be Forgotten? 

Debate over what deserves to be forgotten has raged since the decision was first handed down. On July 2 the BBC’s economics editor, Robert Peston, author of the seven-year-old article "Merrill's Mess" posted a new blog post questioning why Google cast that article into oblivion. “Merrill’s Mess” looked at how the former Merrill Lynch Chief Executive Officer Stan O’Neal was forced out of the American investment bank after the company suffered huge losses on reckless investments. Peston said he received a notice from Google that the article would no longer appear in some certain search results following the EU ruling.

Peston questioned why the information he wrote in his article was, as the EU decision declared for objectionable content, “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” He also wondered who would have complained, as the only name that appeared in the article was that of Stan O’Neal, the very subject of his article. Peston found that his post was still searchable when searching “Stan O’Neal” on Google, and it turned out that most likely the one request to Google must have been someone who commented on Peston’s article and didn’t want his/her name searchable.

The EU Justice Commissioner had insisted that the ruling did not apply to journalistic work. Some thus believe it was more likely that Google used this example to tip public sentiment against “the right to be forgotten.”

If Google censored journalistic work to emphasize that the ruling is against the freedom of expression, it made a point. The public has the right to know, but individuals also have the right to protect their privacy. The invention of the internet embraced people’s freedom to express, but has also threatened to invade individual’s privacy. The common good is served by both these two elements, and not a single one can be omitted. But like the case that appeared before the EU Court, the Spanish businessman also deserved the right to delete his online social security debts records. Therefore, the question is: what deserves to be forgotten and what is supposed to remain public?

A common sentiment is that records of public figures still need exposure, especially they are related to public interest. Bill Clinton’s 90s affairs are not expected to be omitted. Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman will not expect the public to forget his infamous foul ball interference. Maybe it’s the case in how much the public cares about the figure, how he/she has direct or indirect relation to public interest, no matter if the information is for entertainment, finance, education, policy or other aspects. Individuals on the other hand, have the right to be “individual” rather than in public. In this case, the EU Court’s ruling of the “right of being forgotten” is grounded.

How Will it Work in America?

However, when you look into Google’s structure, it becomes more difficult to discern how this will work on a global scale. First of all, Google only lets people "be forgotten" on European sites like,, and It also means that Google only removes links to personal information from European Google sites, but not That is, Europeans can still find the information that has been removed from their local version. This makes all the regulations in the European Google site irrelevant. For Americans, in a country that treasures freedom more than anything, implementation of the “right to be forgotten” will likely never be an option.

Whether Google’s removing the BBC article was on purpose or not, the decision to remove this article highlights the complexity in applying privacy protection onto a digital world that also treasures the freedom of expression. That’s also the reason Google established The Advisory Council to help balance between one person’s right to be forgotten and public’s right to know. It will be interesting to see how Google handles this from here on out.     


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