Google
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One of the first UK news websites to have some of its search engine links hidden under Google's "right to be forgotten" procedure has revealed that the move led to a large spike in traffic - and other publishers are following their example.

The Oxford Mail published a story earlier this month, telling readers that someone had asked the search engine to remove links to an article relating to a man's shoplifting conviction.

Our view is that this is going to be misused by people with criminal convictions, public figures including politicians who want to hide embarrassing stuff about them, and celebritiesJason Collie
Assistant editor Jason Collie said the original court report had been read just 28 times. Since the paper publicised the fact that the link was concealed from Google, it has been read more than 13,000 times – and the story about the removal has had more than 10,000 page views.

He said: "Whoever has asked Google to remove this story, it's not worked. It's brought it to a much wider audience.

"Our view is that there is a legitimate public interest in publishing that story. We felt that the issue is one that the public does have a right to know.

"We are not saying that everybody should always be on the internet forever. There are certain cases where we have removed stories - they usually come direct to newspaper concerned.

"Our view is that this is going to be misused by people with criminal convictions, public figures including politicians who want to hide embarrassing stuff about them, and celebrities."

The site is one of several in the UK to have adopted this approach to keep the information in question in the public domain. It is a tactic recommended by media consultant and trainer Cleland Thom – but it is not without legal risks.

Thom told Journalism.co.uk: "What I'm saying to editors is if you want to preserve your right to publish, write a news story, repeat the link and that puts the story back in the public domain and puts a new link on Google.

"You could repeat an original libel. You might draw up information about somebody's criminal history and there might be new active proceedings against and a trial starting next week.

"They could be court stories that have been rendered out of date by an appeal. All those kinds of risks would be there. I certainly wouldn't advise anyone to just republish information without good legal checking first."

Joe McNamee, the executive director of European Digital Rights, a digital civil rights organisation based in Brussels, says the speed with which Google has complied with the ruling is revealing.

He said: "Google is acting in a way that I really wouldn't have expected – not least because Google is generally extremely good on issues of access to information.

"It's uncharacteristic and partially inexplicable. Google started putting out a lot of information into the press, complying with requests for removal of specific search links very quickly.

"They're making a whole lot of noise around European privacy legislation at coincidentally a moment when they're lobbying quite enthusiastically against European privacy legislation."

Google is acting in a way that I really wouldn't have expected - not least because Google is generally extremely good on issues of access to informationJoe McNamee
The background

A European Court of Justice ruling in May means anyone in Europe can now ask Google to hide links to sites with information about them – but only in search results for their own name. 

It is not a new law – but a new interpretation of a Europe-wide data protection directive dating back to 1995.

The latest twist only applies to search engines in Europe – and the ruling does not have the power to make publishers themselves remove stories from their sites.

To have a link hidden, the information in the article must be outdated, inappropriate or irrelevant. There is also a public interest test. Each decision on whether to hide the results is made by a human at Google – on a case-by-case basis.

Google began complying with the new rule at the beginning of July, providing a simple web form for anyone wanting to protect their privacy.

Since then the search giant has received more than 70,000 requests. Google's top lawyer has described the criteria applied to each request as "very vague and subjective".

Disagreements about whether information should be removed or not will be overseen by national data protection agencies – but publishers themselves have no right to appeal.

Google said it had "received removal requests on all sorts of content: serious criminal records, embarrassing photos, instances of online bullying and name-calling, decades-old allegations, negative press stories, and more".

It added: "For each of these requests, we're required to weigh, on a case-by-case basis, an individual's right to be forgotten with the public's right to know. This obligation is a new and difficult challenge for us, and we're seeking advice on the principles Google ought to apply."

Hear the full Journalism.co.uk podcast on this subject here.

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