The European Union’s highest court recently ruled that search engines, namely Google and maybe Bing, need to honor requests from individuals to be removed from their search indexes in support of a concept known as “the right to be forgotten”.
There are many ethical, political and moral discussions that are happening around the topic right now. While I certainly have opinions in those realms, I want to take a look at it from a purely practical point of view.
It just can’t work.
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What a search engine is
Fundamental to the discussion is understanding exactly what a search engine is, and is not.
Search engines spend massive amounts of time and resources scouring the Internet to locate information. They then build massive indices that allow them to associate searches for information with the location at which the information is stored.
A search engine is a referral service, nothing more.
Consider a simple search for the name “Tesla”:
The search engine reaches into its database of where it had previously found information on the term, and returns that list of websites.
Now, let’s say that Mr. Tesla comes along and does whatever it means to ask to be forgotten. The search then returns nothing:
So far so good. Here’s the problem.
The only thing removal from the search engine did was remove the references to the data. The data itself remains wherever the search engine previously said it was, visible to anyone who happens to stop by.
Yes, it might be a little harder to find, but it’s still there.
You have not been forgotten. Not at all.
Removal from a search engine is misleading
The thing that most people don’t seem to grasp is that the search engines don’t contain or control the data that is stored on the web. They simply point to it.
Removing yourself from a search engine doesn’t remove the data that you’re wanting to hide. It only removes exactly one way of finding it.
Perhaps more important is the fact that there are thousands of search engines and archives. Just because you’ve removed yourself from the top one or two doesn’t mean that the information about you can’t or won’t be found. The internet never forgets. That information, once published publicly, simply cannot be completely hidden.
“The right to be forgotten”, at best, only makes it a little harder for people to find information about you. And if you think that it won’t be found, you’ve been seriously misled.
You can bet that parties interested in searching deeply will turn to alternative resources that will either not respect the right to be forgotten, or one of the thousands of other resources that you simply never got around to asking.
Yes, it’s a dilemma
I’m sure that there are things that all of us have in our past that we would prefer to never have see the light of day – particularly in response to a search on our name and for all the world to see.
Crippling the search engines isn’t a solution. It just isn’t.
There are simply too many ways that the information will remain publicly findable and accessible anyway.