Saturday, June 27, 2015

On Delisting

So the BBC has published a list of all its articles that have been delisted by Google - meaning, articles that people have paid* Google to keep out of web searches.

Publishing these links is an excellent thing to do, as it allows us to take a punt at guessing who requests delisting and why.  As you might expect, most of the delistings relate to court proceedings and criminal offences.

Whenever this topic arises, it's the subject of loud and long lamentation, and for good reason in many cases.  That's quite justified in instances where articles are delisted because they reference

1) People who have committed serious crimes 

Quite a few of these articles relate to terrible crimes, and I think it's fair for people to be concerned about this.  I'm not particularly pleased to see that e.g. rapists could have all mention of their crimes effectively expunged from the record by simply forking over a bit of cash to Google, and you can probably imagine how that ability is very useful for various bad people and organisations.

Note here that I'm assuming that it's the perpetrator or one of his/her relations that has asked for the article to be delisted, rather than the victim.  The latter seems less likely, but it's hardly impossible.

There are far more examples of delisted articles involving  

2) People who have committed minor crimes 

I'm a lot less worried about this.  I have no problem with the idea of people who e.g. get drunk and get into a fight being able to sweep the matter under the carpet.  All of us are human and we can all be terrible shits to each other and make awful errors, and I don't think it's wise or just to keep people on the hook for this in perpetuity.

By "on the hook", I mean the likelihood that any Google search for your name is likely to return an article about you e.g. shoplifting or getting busted for minor drug possession when you were a teenager.  If you've been tried, sentenced and have paid for a minor offence, it seems a bit harsh to me that any future employer, partner or aquaintance is only a web search away from hearing all about it.**

And it's worth noting here the unequal nature of Google searches for individuals, too.  If your name is e.g. "John Smith", "Ann Brown" or "Muhammad Ali", people will most likely have to upend the entire internet to find any online material that references you, rather than the million other "John Smiths" in the UK.   If you're called Trevor Jigglytits De Souza, then a lot of the daft/unpleasant things that you've unwisely said or done will be instantly available.  

Obviously, this level of forgiveness doesn't apply to all crimes and indiscretions, in all situations - I can imagine why a company might want to know if a potential employee isn't mentioning his previous embezzlement convictions, to pick a random example - but it remains a less concerning issue than serious offenders expunging their records.

Another category of delisting relates to

3) People who have said or done embarrassing things 

Quite a few of the delisted articles are about people who have gone missing, for whatever reason.  I can imagine why people might not want the first thing that people can learn about them to be that they did a sudden Stephen Fry act and buggered off to Belgium in the huff for a fortnight in 2004.

There's also a lot of seemingly innocuous articles about TV shows and the like, and I'd suggest that it's not the article itself that somebody wants rid of, but one of the comments underneath it.  Again, if your name is Fuckface McGhee the Third and you once spent a drunken evening typing overwrought comments about e.g. Him Off Big Brother, then your boozy ramblings are likely to be the first thing that people will find on the internet relating to you.

Once more, my sympathy doesn't apply in all cases.  If you're running as an MP and have previously announced that you think Hitler had a point, it's probably in the public interest for that fact to remain on your record.

Nonetheless, I think it's important that we draw a distinction between people who have, on the one hand, made tits of themselves in public, and certain multinational corporations who have accidentally poisoned several thousand Indians to death.  One of these issues is a bit more serious than the other, and it's wrong-headed to treat them both as if they were the same thing.

My generation is lucky in that we're the last that grew up in relative obscurity.  There are, thankfully, no photos of me with that horrible haircut in 1996 floating around the internet, nor are there any snaps of me passed out pissed around a toilet bowl, and there's no public record of that night that I went off on one and made an utter exhibition of myself in that pub in Dundee.  This is a bit of a blessing, and it's not one that people who go out and make arses of themselves this evening will be able to count upon.

It's also fortunate for me that the internet really went big when I was in my early twenties, as anyone who has ever found an example of their angst-ridden teenage poetry at the back of a drawer will attest.  It's a lot easier to put an old bit of paper in the bin than it is to delete it from somebody else's Facebook account, isn't it?

Anyway, none of this should be read as saying that there's no problem with Google offering a delisting service.  There are many reasons why this should be seen as A Bad Thing, helping nasty people and organisations to shuck off the consequences of their own nastiness.

Nonetheless, it doesn't hurt to look at the issue with just a little bit of compassion and human empathy, I think.

*I'm just assuming that you have to pay for a delisting here, but I may be wrong.

**Enthusiastic law 'n' order types tend to disagree on this point but in my experience, even the most unforgiving of hardline justice types suddenly changes their tune on the matter when it's them or their family member that's been arrested for shoving a traffic warden or some such. 


Al Roth said...


I'm a little hazy on the details of all this. Is it anything to do with the EU's 'right to be forgotten' concept.

Trevor Jigglytits De Souza said...

As I said to the judge, I was just polishing it and it went off.

Phil said...

e.g. rapists could have all mention of their crimes effectively expunged from the record

Not really. Less serious criminal records 'expire' eventually - the longer the sentence, the longer it takes to expire. Above a certain level, though, a criminal record never expires - you always have to declare it when applying for a job, a voluntary position, a loan etc. And the level's not high - I think it's about eighteen months in prison. Sex offenders also have to go on the Sex Offenders' Register after release, and that's rather hard to get off. Even if you think that a 20-year-old armed robber should still have his record hung around his neck when he's 60 - and I'm not sure I do - the current system does basically achieve that.

gregorach said...

"accidentally poisoned several thousand Indians to death"

You seem to have misspelt "negligently"...

Anonymous said...

No, you don't have to pay to apply for a delisting. And no, an application for delisting doesn't mean that Google will necessarily accept the request.

There are lots of issues involved, to be sure, such as extraterritoriality, the likelihood that the applicant is likely to be parti pris, public interest, and so on.

But I'm really not sure of your concerns. Google already delists lots of sites such as child pornography, incitements to terrorism, libraries of ghastly war footage, and so on. Good for them, say I.