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Google and “the right to be forgotten”.

Could it be that Google Search has reached its limit to scale?

A lot has been written and said recently about “the right to be forgotten”, after a European Court of Justice stated that Google must amend search results when they show inaccurate information hosted by third party. (See “Google introduces a way for Europeans to be forgotten online”.)

The issue is much bigger than a silly annoyance caused by people who don’t understand how technology works (a popular belief among the digerati).

“The so-called right to be forgotten, based in French law and enshrined in EU privacy rules that date back almost two decades, sets up the expectation that individuals’ reputations not be tarred by misdeeds in the past”, explains Lisa Fleisher

In principle, I totally agree with the European point of view: we are designed to forget, and as one grows up learns that forgetting is sometimes the only way to move ahead. On the other hand, Americans tend to think that this right can be used to undermine free speech —I can see this happening too.

However, it is my understanding that the advocates of “the right to be forgotten” are often after something else, what I would call “the right to be fairly presented” —a right that applies to both individuals and products, brands and businesses.

The “right to be fairly presented”, if there was one, would state that Google Search, any widely used authoritative source of information, has the obligation to present information about a person or a brand or any other subject in a way that is fair. 

For example, if I was accused of stealing money from my employer 10 years ago, and I eventually won the case in courts years later, showing the accusations on the first page of Google Search results about my name and the latter on the second page, this is an unfair representation of who I am. The same would apply to products too: showing a page full of results that a product is suspicious of causing cancer and “hiding” the fact that detailed and well documented scientific research proves the opposite in the second page of results is not a fair representation of the product.

The problem is that Google is treated as, but not designed as, an authoritative source of information. When you search Google, you shouldn’t expect the top results to be “right”, or “accurate” (as defined by scientific research, law or ethics): You should expect to get the most popular. Everyone should know this, but they don’t —and even when they do, the power of “top results” is hard to oversee.

In a way, Google Search’s initial design was based on the assumption that popularity is meritocracy: The most linked pages on the Internet must be good sources of information. This made at least some sense when the Internet was just starting to leave its academic origins. But it doesn’t make much sense today: Popular belief is often wrong and spicy stories about a person are usually more popular than the rest of what they’ve done throughout their entire life.

A great tool can be used in ways you didn’t expect, right? Well, this may be one of Google’s biggest challenges in the years to come: It’s a practically a monopoly on information retrieval on a global scale, and users have decided to use it as an authoritative source of information. 

I expect that sooner or later, Google will have to deal with it. They will either have to convince Google Search users that their results are not authoritative, or change the way it works in order to favour authoritative results (something that involves taking into account scientific beliefs, laws and even ethics and that’s neither as clear nor as well defined as the problems Google is good at solving), or face regulation in one way or another.

Could it be that Google Search has reached its limit to scale? Maybe this limit is not technical, but social. Has Google Search become so important that Google can’t deal with the implications of its size?