Because skeptics constantly criticize the claims of others, we often provoke angry reactions. Ideally this provokes some educational debate, but sometimes it goes sour. That can take the form of trolling, harassment or even escalate to legal action. In the United States the legal option tends not to be too successful, thanks to our First Amendment rights. But that doesn’t apply outside the US.
Some opponents of skeptics seek out more creative ways to shut down our commentary. A few years ago a German named Claus Fritsche was paid by homeopathy manufacturers to create spam websites that would poison the search engine results for Edzard Ernst’s name, in an effort to discredit his critiques of alternative medicine. Numerous skeptics have been targets of spurious DMCA claims on YouTube over the years.
Recently the European courts have created a brand new way for the people we criticize to tamper with (at least in Europe) our ability to reach an audience. It is called the “right to be forgotten” and skeptic webmasters need to stay on top of their tools in order not to get blindsided by this.
Read on and I’ll explain.
Right to be Forgotten
A Spanish man sued Google in the European courts, to force them to remove a link to a story about a debt problem he had back in the 1990s which appeared when anyone searched for his name. He won his case in the European Court of Justice on May 13. Google is now required to take requests for removal of links.
The legal basis for this ruling is a fundamental right to privacy that the EU recognizes in its laws. And certainly there are precedents for this even in the US. For instance, certain types of legal records are automatically purged after a certain amount of time in order to protect minors.
But applying this to search engines in general is certainly a new area. Anyone who follows Google knows the company has always been loath to make manual changes to search results. They prefer to fix things algorithmically, or even sometimes by running ads over the problematic results. This is why they fought the case in court – they foresee the job of policing results getting wildly out of hand.
Good Uses vs. Abuse
I’ve spoken about this issue recently on both Skepticality and Virtual Skeptics. Listener Ken Fallon wrote in after the Skepticality episode to point out that the law has many legitimate uses that I didn’t emphasize in my admittedly short segment. He’s right. The law provides for these requests to be balanced against other requirements and the intent is requests are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
But although Google is a large, wealthy company – they do not have an infinite number of employees or infinite amounts of time to dedicate to this task. Between May 30th (when their removal request form went up) and July 31st, they reported receiving 91,000 of these requests involving 328,000 separate URLs. About 53% of these are actually removed, another 15% required Google to ask the requestor to supply more information.
In their report to the European regulators, they’ve reported having trouble understanding how to handle many of the requests:
In many cases, we lack the larger factual context for a request, without which it is difficult to balance the competing interests.
We generally have to rely on the requester for information, without assurance beyond the requester’s own assertions as to its accuracy. Some requests turn out to have been made with false and inaccurate information. Even if requesters provide us with accurate information, they understandably may avoid presenting facts that are not in their favour. As such, we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favor of preserving the accessibility of a search result.
Indeed, Google has been publicly criticized for removing links to news articles about public figures (some of which they have later reinstated) and for removing links to Wikipedia articles based on these requests. That has prompted at least one site that is trying to track what links are being removed and the creation of a committee to advise Google on this process.
More recently, Wikipedia has publicly acknowledged they have been targeted, and will dedicate a page to list which of their articles have been affected by this. (And remember that it was Wikipedia’s prominence in Google that led to the creation of Susan Gerbic’s Wikipedia project as a key form of skeptic outreach). For more on the issues around Wikipedia, see Paul Fidalgo’s excellent new blog iMortal where he recently wrote about this.
Skeptics in the Crosshairs – Here’s What To Do
Since this is Skeptools, of course I’m interested in how this pertains to skeptics, especially bloggers and webmasters.
First, it is important to clarify that these requests do not cause the content itself to be removed from the Internet entirely. Google may be powerful, but they are not that powerful! This only changes search engine results – meaning the general public will no longer be able to find that content when searching for that person’s name in a search engine.
It also does not alter searches for US citizens in the US version of Google – only the search pages accessible in the EU. (Of course, other search engines are moving to comply with the law – Microsoft launched their removal form for their Bing search engine on July 17 – with the same caveats applying).
But even so, this is still a huge problem that experienced webmasters will understand. Numbers vary, but most websites depend on Google to send them as much as 40 percent to 50 percent of their readers.
Skeptic websites crucially depend on this for outreach, which is why I often mention SEO on this blog. By building critical articles that appear in Google under the names of quacks, pseudoscientists and other con artists, skeptics can intercept customers before they are taken. This is also precisely why Wikipedia is also so important to skeptic outreach – it nearly always ranks very highly in Google.
But the right to be forgotten could interfere with that form of outreach. Quacks and charlatans in Europe could already be filing “right to be forgotten” requests, and key skeptic content could start to evaporate from Google. Any skeptic who has criticized an EU-based charlatan online should be wary of this happening.
Keep in mind Google’s problem in understanding the context of requests (mentioned above). Do you expect the average Google employee has a full grasp of the sometimes complicated issues of pseudoscience and the paranormal written about by skeptics?
I have several best practice recommendations at this point, depending on your role in skepticism.
For Skeptic Webmasters and Bloggers:
Google notifies webmasters when it receives requests that affect them. But in order to do that Google must know who you are! And so, if you are responsible for any sort of web content which criticizes EU-based persons or companies, you should ensure that your site is registered in both Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools.
Make sure you go through the process to verify your ownership of the site, and you tie your registration to an email address that you check regularly. For regular websites that usually means inserting a small piece of hidden HTML (a “meta” tag) into your homepage that the search engine can use to verify that you are the owner of the site. The sites will guide you through the process.
For common blog platforms, there’s usually an easy way to do this in the software. On WordPress blogs this is located under the Tools menu on the left side of your dashboard. As long as you use the same Google account for both, new Blogspot blogs are automatically registered in Google Webmaster tools, older blogs can use the HTML meta tag method.
If your blog is on a larger platform that is run by someone else (e.g. Patheos, ScienceBlogs and so on) then you should make sure whoever runs the site as a whole has done this, and is prepared to relay takedown notices to you and other individual authors.
For Targeted Skeptics:
Some skeptics have been directly targeted for online harassment which sometimes involves “Google bombing” campaigns. I mentioned one against Edzard Ernst above. Curious, I asked him if he intended to use the new European law to clean up his own search results from any remaining damage done by Claus Fritzsche. He told me:
Never! My attitude is that most intelligent people will see through these silly attacks; and unintelligent people do not bother me.
That is a laudable attitude that I would recommend other skeptics try to emulate. If you do decide to use this law to clean up your own results, take care. Keep in mind that any such attempt could backfire in a version of the Streisand effect. Quack webmasters have access to Google Webmaster Tools as well, naturally.
For All Skeptics:
In a further bit of transparency, if a particular web search (usually for people by name) is altered by these requests, Google includes the following notice at the very bottom of the results page:
Every skeptic needs to keep an eye out for this message appearing at the bottom of search results. (Remember this only pertains to the European versions of Google – google.co.uk, google.de and so on). Depending on the search term, this may indicate a skeptic site has been targeted.
The right to be forgotten is a new law that serves a valid purpose in helping Europeans manage their reputation online. But it is also a new potential tool that can be used to damage skeptic outreach. Every skeptic webmaster, especially bloggers who regularly criticize European citizens and companies, should have a properly configured account in Google Webmaster tools (as well as Microsoft’s equivalent). Make sure you monitor this account (and the associated email address) for any notices from Google about requests about your site.
Any and all European skeptics should also keep an eagle eye out for indications in search engine results that may indicate that these requests are being abused by quacks.
Please contact me immediately if you notice any skeptic-relevant application of this in your webmaster notifications or in the Google results, and I will follow up on this blog.