Tuesday, May 26

Ara Shirinian: Search engines should allow requests for removal of irrelevant links

(Creative Commons photo by Robert Scoble via Flickr)

It’s summer, and for most students it’s the chance to get away from the monotony of taking classes and being told what to learn to earn a degree. Over the next 10 weeks, four Daily Bruin columnists will take the time to explore the bigger problems of our day that exist beyond campus boundaries and often beyond students’ purview during the regular academic year. In his last piece, columnist Ara Shirinian considers the “right to be forgotten” and the possibility of adding it to the list of rights the U.S. government is tasked with protecting.

Telling only part of the truth is not telling the truth at all. That’s why the selective results from search engines like Google can make you seem like someone you’re not.

Last year, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the highest court in Europe, ruled in favor of the “right to be forgotten,” or the right of individuals to request the removal of links related to them that become “irrelevant” on search engines such as Google.

Yet so far, there doesn’t seem to be strict guidelines as to what constitutes irrelevant material. The discretion seems to be mostly in Google’s hands, which has since removed well over 300,000 links from its search results, granting approximately 41 percent of requests.

Though European regulations may not be ideal in the United States, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to protect privacy and free speech at the same time. To do this, federal legislation should push all search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing to accept requests for removing or modifying misleading links related to individuals’ names.

The First Amendment does not include any exceptions for privacy, so it will be difficult to pass privacy legislation, since search results are considered a form of speech. Thus, the right to be forgotten, as it currently exists in Europe, can probably never come to the U.S.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t incorporate some legislation that will help protect privacy without causing any harm to our First Amendment. In Europe, Google has definitely been making a solid effort to handle requests themselves. In the U.S., it doesn’t allow people to request the removal of personal information except for some financial or governmental identification numbers.

Simply making sure search engines have a means by which people can make requests, and having them handle it on a case-by-case basis could do a lot of good. By making search engine companies do extra work, but ultimately leaving most of the decision-making to them, free speech will be preserved and privacy will see greater protection.

It’s important we make this change because search results are purely the outcome of complex algorithms that are not always good at making decisions about which pieces of information are important.

In December, to promote its customizable “Year in Review” slideshows, Facebook presented people with suggested pictures and videos using algorithms, sometimes with catastrophic results. One parent, for instance, was shown a picture of his child who had passed away that year.

Facebook released an apology immediately, but the lesson is clear: Algorithms don’t always get things right when it comes to describing people.

Similarly, the results that come up on search engines like Google that are linked to people’s names do not always represent a fair view of them. Even if the links don’t contain any false information, they can be outdated or misleading depending on how they are displayed.

When it comes to information that can be accessed through search engines, the results could have a far greater impact, since links can be viewed by anyone.

For instance, a person might be convicted of a crime but later found to be innocent and acquitted. Since algorithms list results based on what is more newsworthy, search engines often prioritize articles about convictions over acquittals.

If someone is in this situation and his or her name is searched, the story about the conviction will likely float to the top. And without links to the acquittal, it could lead to an extremely unflattering and false representation of who he or she is.

One worry about the European legislation is that it could allow public officials or criminals to alter their public record.

However, this doesn’t seem to be likely, since links related to public figures would never be considered irrelevant. And even if links to other individuals are removed or disassociated from their name, the articles would still be available through their original sources and even different search terms. So it is wrong to view these changes as censorship.

Before the free flow of information made available by the Internet, these kinds of privacy concerns were much less prevalent. Newspapers could publish information about people that they may not have liked. But when articles became old or irrelevant, they were hardly likely to cause trouble. Now, since those articles come back any time someone searches a name, there is much greater cause for concern.

The availability of searchable information that we now take for granted has brought an incredible amount of good. However, like with all new technologies, it has left us with some growing pains. Though finding the right balance of regulation will take getting used to, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to recreate the privacy protections we had before without stepping on the heels of information companies like Google.

There is no doubt that algorithms will get better with time and make fewer mistakes, but when it comes to important personal information made public via the Internet, a human touch is never a bad idea.


Ara Shirinian was an assistant opinion editor from 2015-16 and an opinion columnist from 2014-15. He writes about technology, transfer students and Westwood.

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