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The BBC Doesn't Want to Be Forgotten by Google


Search for Stan O’Neal, pictured here in 2007, on the British version of Google, and you’ll see a disclaimer that content may have been removed

Photograph by Mike Mergen/Bloomberg

Search for Stan O’Neal, pictured here in 2007, on the British version of Google, and you’ll see a disclaimer that content may have been removed

Since agreeing to comply with the European Court of Justice’s decision that people have the right to be forgotten, Google (GOOG) has received about 50,000 requests for Web pages to be removed from European search results. One of the requests it has granted relates to a story written by BBC economics editor Robert Peston. But Peston doesn’t want his article to be forgotten.

The 2007 article in question, “Merrill’s mess,”  discusses Merrill Lynch’s (BAC) huge losses on securities backed by subprime mortgages. Today it reads as a minor but prescient piece of historical color, foreshadowing major losses by financial institutions and a credit crunch creating difficulties for weaker borrowers.

Peston says that Google sent the BBC a notification on Wednesday: “Notice of removal from Google Search,” it read, according to an article Peston posted to the BBC’s website. “We regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google.” Following was the URL to the 2007 article. This doesn’t mean that the article disappears from the Internet, only that people typing a particular combination of words into Google’s search engine will no longer see it.

Both Peston and the BBC were perturbed. “We’re surprised that this is the outcome of the ECJ ruling and concerned at the implications of the removal from search of this type of material,” said the BBC in a statement e-mailed to Bloomberg News. Peston complained that Google had cast his article “into the oblivion of unsearchable Internet data.”

BBC isn’t the only European media outlet complaining about Google’s action. The Guardian says that six of its articles have disappeared from searches, including three about Dougie McDonald, a Scottish soccer referee who was forced to resign after lying about why he granted a controversial penalty kick in a professional match. “There will likely be many more as the rich and powerful look to scrub up their online images, doubtless with the help of a new wave of ‘reputation management’ firms,” the newspaper writes.

So who’s responsible for requesting that Peston’s article disappear? Peston originally said he thought Google “removed” the article at the request of Stan O’Neal, the former chairman of Merrill Lynch, because O’Neal was the only person mentioned in the article. O’Neal hasn’t responded to a request for comment made through Alcoa (AA), where he sits on the board.

But O’Neal isn’t the only potential source for the request. The Peston article hasn’t disappeared altogether; search for Stan O’Neal on the British version of Google, and you’ll see a disclaimer that content may have been removed—and also a link to Peston’s article. It’s possible that someone who commented on the original article was the one who made the request to be delinked. Two comments in particular may have led to remorse: one from a former Merrill employee who says he’s glad he got out when he did, and another making a racist comment about O’Neal, who is black. Maybe someone should be forced to be forever linked to stray examples of their own bigotry, but the European courts don’t think so. Search for the names of the people who posted those comments, however, and you get a similar result as you do when you search for O’Neal: a disclaimer and a link to the article.

Ironically, the result of Peston’s piece being sort-of forgotten is that it has probably been read more in the past 24 hours than at any time since the day it was written seven years ago. A Google search for McDonald, the referee whose Google results really have been swept clean, makes it even clearer how futile this exercise can be. The Guardian’s articles are gone, but the first result is a Wikipedia page that summarizes their findings. In the standard search results are also several links to news stories about the recent controversy, which dredge up the controversy again. One could continuously request that every page mentioning some former sin be removed from search results, but if it’s notable, it’ll probably repeatedly end up elsewhere. Even if Google forgets you, the Internet won’t.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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