The Streisand effect and lessons in transparency

We know the national media has been kicking up a storm after Google began implementing Europe’s ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling. It’s something that Google is doing under duress and publishers vehemently oppose. Meanwhile, the unintended consequences since its introduction offer a cautionary tale for those hoping to massage the past.

The ruling dictates that individuals have the right – under certain conditions – to ask search engine companies to remove links to articles with personal information about them, where the information is deemed to be inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive. Clearly, the definition is open to interpretation and removing references to an article from a search engine’s index is not the same thing as removing the article itself.

Nevertheless, given Google’s dominant place in our browsing habits this could amount to the same thing in terms of visibility. Or it might without the attention the ‘right to be forgotten’ has attracted. It now turns out that parts of the regional press have been hitting back too. According to a report:

The Oxford Mail published a story earlier this month, telling readers that someone had asked the search engine to remove links to an article relating to a man’s shoplifting conviction.

Assistant editor Jason Collie said the original court report had been read just 28 times. Since the paper publicised the fact that the link was concealed from Google, it has been read more than 13,000 times – and the story about the removal has had more than 10,000 page views.

He said: “Whoever has asked Google to remove this story, it’s not worked. It’s brought it to a much wider audience.

This is yet another example of the Streisand Effect and a useful lesson for individuals, and the organisations they work for, tempted to reach for the delete button. Or ask Google to effectively do the same thing.

The Streisand Effect? Named after US actress and singer Barbra Streisand, the Streisand Effect is neatly explained by The Economist:

Ms Streisand inadvertently gave her name to the phenomenon in 2003, when she sued the California Coastal Records Project [CCRP], which maintains an online photographic archive of almost the entire California coastline, on the grounds that its pictures included shots of her cliffside Malibu mansion, and thus invaded her privacy.

That raised hackles online. The internet’s history is steeped in West Coast cyber-libertarianism, and Ms Streisand (herself generally sympathetic to the liberal left) was scorned for what was seen as a frivolous suit that was harmful to freedom of speech. As the links proliferated, thousands of people saw the pictures of Ms Streisand’s house – far more than would otherwise ever have bothered to browse through the CCRP’s archives.

At least for now, the ‘right to be forgotten’ is turning into an exercise in reminding us about stuff long forgotten. And while there will be occasions when it is worth – and entirely legitimate – to seek to remove links from the past, transparency, good faith and public interest dictate that it should be used as a last resort.

Jon Bernstein is an independent digital media consultant and writer, formerly deputy editor then digital director of New Statesman and multimedia editor at Channel 4 News

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