Why Google's Removal of News Links in the EU Is a Good Thing

The furor over Google's removal of news links in the EU will, I hope, alert people to the dangers of allowing a single, commercially motivated entity to effectively be the sole gatekeeper and organizer of the Web's information.
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Because the EU has recognized a "right to be forgotten," it is now possible for European citizens to request that Google remove links to stories that provide information about their lives. This means that the BBC and other news outlets are starting to get notices from Google informing them that some of their content will no longer come up in Google searches.

There are two ways to look at this. The first response, which we will no doubt hear from Google itself, is that an overweening EU government is giving its squeamish citizens the power to edit history. "It's just like Orwell's 1984," we will no doubt hear, "We cannot let the record of the past be deleted just because some people are uncomfortable with it!"

This response makes sense only if you already equate what comes up in a Google search with an objective record of history. I have written in The Nation about the dangers of treating Google's search algorithm as an objectively relevant response to any query. When you search for a term on Google, at least 57 different variables determine the list of responses you get, and not all of those signals are objective.

For example, If I search for "next gen iPad" on my computer, I'll not only get a different set of results than you will, but some of both of our results will be links to ads for companies that have a relationship to Google, mixed in with news stories about Apple's product line. Google has already been warned by the US Federal Trade Commission not to surreptitiously direct search traffic back to its own services rather than out into the rest of the Web. The European Commission has warned Google about exactly the same behavior. If you're looking for an overweening power that wants to rewrite the record of the world's information, it isn't the EU but Google itself that you should be worried about.

The furor over Google's removal of news links in the EU will, I hope, alert people to the dangers of allowing a single, commercially motivated entity to effectively be the sole gatekeeper and organizer of the Web's information. Google will tell you that the competition is "just one click away," but their dominance in search is unquestionable. They control something like 67 percent of search traffic in the US and close to 90 percent of it in the EU. If it's not on Google, it doesn't exist.

I have written before about why I think the right to be forgotten is a good thing. But that doesn't mean that I think we should allow history or the record of recent events to be eradicated. That's why we have libraries and long established rules for classifying and judging the value of information, e.g. the Dewey Decimal System and peer reviewed scholarship. That's why we have encyclopedias and newspaper archives. I am writing this very post from deep within a library in Manhattan, where, if I want to know something, I can go downstairs and ask a librarian, who will point me toward a pile of printed information, some of which has been unmolested by the shifting concerns of the outside world for decades. I don't have to worry about whether this library is changing its shelves around based on an undisclosed commercial relationship it might have, or whether the librarian I am talking to is being paid by somebody or pressured by the government to hide certain sources of information. Or whether, for that matter, the library is handing over my browsing habits to the NSA.

The library I am writing from is able to exist within our economic system but still have as its primary, unpolluted mission the education of its patrons. Our interdependent system of publishers, universities, newspapers, and public and private libraries has done an imperfect but reliable job of keeping objective track of our information, which is no less than our collective picture of the world, for the last five hundred years. Our online information organizing system is still too young and moves too fast to have that kind of reliability, yet that hasn't stopped us from treating it as infallible.

At a panel discussion I organized and attended earlier this month, I was privileged to meet one of my intellectual heroes, Robert Darnton, who has written about the tensions between commercial interests and the public good in our online information economy. In the panel, he noted that John Milton in his fiery 1644 defense of free speech, Areopagitica, was writing not against the oppressive power of the state but of the printers guilds. Darnton said the same was true of John Locke's writings about free speech. Locke's boogeyman wasn't an oppressive government, but a monopolistic commercial distribution system that was unfriendly to ways of organizing information that didn't fit into its business model. Sound familiar?

So the second way of thinking about Google's takedown notices to the press in the EU is to see them as reminders that while we allow one big player to be the effective gatekeepers of all our information, we have no right to be outraged over how its behavior or the consequences of its behavior might distort our collective view of the world.

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