No Index, No Follow: Resetting Privacy Expectations With Reality

unnamed-18I’m sorry – but you do not have the right to be forgotten. While you might be excused for thinking so after the European Court announced its decision to compel search engines to remove links, please don’t confuse this legal decision with sanity like logic and common sense.

I think this decision is completely absurd. Reacting to revelations about government spying and information sharing notwithstanding, compelling search engines to alter their results for personal requests seems misplaced at best and a horrible misuse of authority at worst. We’re not talking about the NSA here after all, we’re talking about links sources of data already published. Petitioning Google feels like we’re just killing the messenger.

The most disturbing part of this decision is the dangerous precedent that it sets. Consider where this could lead. I envision scenarios where people start asking Facebook to remove any photo that tags them regardless of whose profile is hosting it. Where would this end? Imagine if authors asked libraries to remove a card catalogue reference to their book on a shelf. Seems crazy, right?

That’s exactly what this decision allows. Anyone can now petition a search engine to remove a link from their results on any grounds. Forget the idea of revising history for a second; simply imagine the countless resources and hours required for search engines to evaluate and respond to all of these requests.

Don’t believe me? Google last month alone said they received over 91,000 requests involving more than 320,000 links. That’s a lot of requests that don’t get the benefit of a fancy algorithm for processing. Time is money – don’t think for a second that the engines won’t soon pass along these added costs right to the end users. Sure, any impact on cost-per-clicks will be negligible now, but what if more countries follow suit?

Frankly, anyone routinely using the internet should understand that anonymity isn’t really achievable anyway. Instead, the quest for invisibility within the modern and developed world occupies the minds of the delusional; an impossible feat available only to the select few self-remanded to a fallout shelter, Antarctica or the uncertain shadows of a truly “off-the-grid” lifestyle.

Like entering a shopping mall, browsing the web carries with it inescapable realities insurmountable by all save Casper. The simple fact is that others will know who you are and what you are doing even if you’re not ‘checking in’ everywhere while posting 50 Facebook status updates per minute. This really isn’t any different than any other fact of life. If you truly want to be faceless and nameless, then I would suggest that you head to the aforementioned fallout shelter and prepare for the Zombiepocalypse to pass.

Even if we concede for a moment that we want total anonymity, it still doesn’t provide the right to revise history. A search engine is linking people, information and stories – who are we to force a search engine to stop this? After all, the stories were already out there somehow – the search engine merely provides the link. While we’ve all said and done things we’d like nothing more than to forget, doesn’t asking for these links to be removed constitute its own form of censorship? Unfortunately, this isn’t a situation where a judge can expunge your record. We live in a world where selfies and tweets represent the norm and enter the public domain at an unrelenting pace.

Much as I’d love to say this is a step in the right direction or some new champion for privacy, it’s not. It’s not the responsibility of Google or any search engine to manually remove links any more than that of the microfiche or card tech to censor, remove or choose what remained eligible for consumption and what did not. The real question we should be asking here is how to prevent ourselves from appearing on sites across the web in the first place. Bad press sells – maybe if we didn’t embarrass ourselves so routinely there’d be less unflattering content to link to.

Besides, so long as there are projects like this, do we really have anywhere to hide?

Oliver Nelson is currently an Associate Media Director, eDR at Underscore Marketing, working across several healthcare, pharmaceutical and OTC categories. His focus is on digital display, social media,  search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO). Underscore is an integrated agency that services healthcare and healthy brands.