Why Google Is Yanking Negative Coverage Of Powerful People From Its Search Results

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This picture taken on May 13, 2013 in the French western city of Rennes shows a woman choosing Google Search (or Google Web Search) web search engine front page on her tablet. A report by a French expert panel published on May 13, 2013 recommended imposing taxes on smartphones and tablets but rejected a call for search engine Google to be charged for linking to media content. The nine-member panel, headed by respected journalist and businessman Pierre Lescure, said in the keenly awaited report t | DAMIEN MEYER via Getty Images

The implementation of the European Union's so-called "right to be forgotten" policy is already having a worrying impact on the media, with at least two outlets revealing on Wednesday that links to articles of theirs have been scrubbed from Google. (UPDATE: One of the outlets, the Guardian, had links to its posts restored by Google after a major outcry over the decision.)

A European court ruled in May that Google must remove links to articles from its search engine if the subjects of the post asked it to. The court specified that links could be scrubbed if they were "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed."

When the ruling came down, some worried that it would place too much power in the hands of public figures who wished to have unflattering information—and, especially, press coverage—about themselves hidden.

On Wednesday, the Guardian and the BBC both disclosed that just such an occurrence seemed to have taken place with stories of theirs.

The BBC's case was possibly the more troubling, since it concerned a former Wall Street titan. The broadcaster's economics correspondent, Robert Peston, wrote a blog post highlighting the removal of a 2007 item he'd written about Stan O'Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch who was hugely implicated in the subprime mortgage scandal.

O'Neal was the only person named in Peston's blog post, leading to the conclusion that the disgraced former tycoon had lobbied Google to have it removed.

Peston was not pleased:

My column describes how O'Neal was forced out of Merrill after the investment bank suffered colossal losses on reckless investments it had made. Is the data in it "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant"? Hmmm. 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).

The Guardian's James Ball wrote that the newspaper had received a notification from Google that six of its articles had been taken down from the search giant's European sites.

Three of the articles concerned Dougie McDonald, a soccer referee who was caught lying about one of his decisions in a game and subsequently resigned. The other three ran the gamut from a link to an index of blog articles to a piece about a lawyer in some legal trouble of his own.

Ball noted that all of the articles can still be found on Google's American edition, but added that the removal of the articles amounted to "a huge, if indirect, challenge to press freedom." He also questioned why Google had been given so much responsibility in the decision to scrub posts.

Google later restored links to the Guardian articles after its decision drew worldwide condemnation. The BBC post was not restored immediately.

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