The European Court of Justice's ruling that Europeans have "the right to be forgotten" by Google raises a bunch of tricky questions, both philosophical and practical. In May, the court told the search engine that it must delete, in certain cases, information that is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" when requested by a member of the public.
But what, exactly, do those terms cover? And how would Google handle the onslaught of requests that would presumably pour in once 'the right to be forgotten' went into effect for real?
Things are already getting messy.
Yesterday, British outlets including the BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Mail received automated notifications from Google that a number of their articles had been hidden by the search engine (Note: this only affects the European version of Google; all searches done in the U.S. are unaffected by the ruling).
Over at the Guardian, six articles have been removed from some searches thus far. As the outlet notes, it's a bizarrely eclectic group of stories that includes three articles about Dougie McDonald, a now-retired Scottish Premier League referee who resigned after he lied about his reasons for granting a penalty, an article about Post-it art created by French workers, an article about a solicitor accused of fraud, and finally, oddly, an index page of a week's worth of articles by Guardian journalist Roy Greenslade.
The Daily Mail, meanwhile, was sent notifications that several of its articles -- a story about an airline accused of racism by a Muslim job applicant, a piece about a couple arrested for having sex on a train and, yes, an article about former FIFA referee Dougie McDonald -- have also been hidden.
From Post-it art to a fraud lawsuit, the breadth of these articles is sprawling and will continue to grow -- Google said it has already received over 50,000 requests to remove content from its search engine.
At the BBC, Google notified reporter Robert Peston that one of his articles -- a 2007 piece about how Stan O'Neal, the former boss Merrill Lynch who left the bank after his reckless investments resulted in "colossal losses" – has been removed from certain searches.
As the Guardian points out, these 'forgotten' articles still exist on the internet. Hyperlinks that link out to them still work, and alternative search terms – such as 'referee that was fired,' as opposed to Dougie McDonald – will dredge up the 'removed' content. In other words, Google has not deleted anything; it's just made certain pages noticeably harder to find.
For many people, however, 'harder to find' means nonexistent "given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people," BBC's Peston argues.
And that worries him: "Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record - especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory (Merrill went to the brink of collapse the following year, and was rescued by Bank of America)," he wrote.
While Peston speculates that his article's removal may have been a mistake -- a result of "teething problems" – this gets at the central problem with the court's ruling: What does "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" encompass, anyway? It's subjective, and tasking Google with interpreting such an ambiguous, overly broad ruling on a case-by-case basis leaves the door wide open for the removal of information that is, in fact, both adequate and relevant.
While the ruling's first ripple raises more questions than it answers, we do get one clear takeaway: According to Preston, to deal with the tidal wave of requests it's received since the ruling, Google has hired an "army of paralegals."
So at least we know that.