Wikimedia: Right to be forgotten results in 'Internet riddled with memory holes'

Google has removed over 50 links to Wikipedia from its search results on European domains as a consequence of the EU’s “right to be forgotten” ruling which, according to Wikimedia, “punches holes in free knowledge.”

The foundation behind Wikipedia last week started receiving notices that certain links to Wikipedia content would no longer appear in search results served to people in Europe, Wikimedia’s general counsel Geoff Brigham and legal counsel Michelle Paulson wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

The links to Wikipedia were removed as a direct result of a May ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The decision gave EU citizens the right to compel search engines to remove results for queries that include a person’s name, if the results are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive.”

Wikimedia so far received five notices for search result removals from Google, covering more than 50 links pointing to the Dutch, English and Italian versions of Wikipedia, it said. Most of the deleted search results referred to Dutch Wikipedia editor discussion pages and pages with formal mediation between editors.

Google said in the notifications sent to Wikimedia that, due to privacy concerns, it was not able to disclose why it removed the results for a certain name query.

“In many cases the affected queries do not relate to the name of any person mentioned prominently on the page,” Google said, adding that in some cases the name may only appear in the comments section.

For example, two links pointing to the English version of Wikipedia were removed by Google: a link to a photo with the title “Tom Carstairs in concert” and a link to a page about an Irish bank robber called Gerry Hutch.

This might initially imply that Carstairs and Hutch themselves requested the links to be removed. However, when searching for their names using a European Google search domain like google.nl, the links still appear. This suggests that the links were removed for name searches other than “Tom Carstairs” and “Gerry Hutch.”

A link to an Italian article about the Banda della Comasina, a Milan group that was involved in robberies, kidnappings and drug trafficking in the 70s, was also removed. A link to a related article about Renato Vallanzasca, the leader of the group, also doesn’t appear as a result for certain queries. However, it does not appear that Vallanzasca filed the takedown request, since the links appear under searches on his name.

According to Wikimedia’s executive director, Lila Tretikov, the CJEU’s decision is “undermining the world’s ability to freely access accurate and verifiable records about individuals and events,” she said in a blog post.

By implementing a crude right to be forgotten the court “abandoned its responsibility to protect one of the most important and universal rights: the right to seek, receive, and impart information,” Tretikov said.

“As a consequence, accurate search results are vanishing in Europe with no public explanation, no real proof, no judicial review, and no appeals process. The result is an internet riddled with memory holes—places where inconvenient information simply disappears,” she said.

The ruling does not mandate that search engines disclose link censorship. But Wikimedia will be posting notices for each indefinite removal of Wikipedia search results on a dedicated page, she said.

Wikimedia’s critique on the ruling echoes others who have similar grievances with the court’s decision.

Google for instance already described the guidelines for removing query results as ”very vague and subjective,” and found that some people who are seeking to scrub their histories from the Web are being economical with the truth when making their requests.

Moreover, a U.K. House of Lords subcommittee has called the right to be forgotten unworkable and misguided. It advised the U.K. government to fight any possible adoption of the right to be forgotten into future EU data protection regulation.

Meanwhile, European data protection authorities met with Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to discuss the ruling. The authorities aim to issue guidelines to ensure a consistent implementation of the ruling this fall.

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