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Steptoe Cyberblog

Are You a Google-Certified Public Figure?

Posted in China, International, Privacy Regulation

I am not a big fan of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” but it has one silver lining.  I was noodling around with Google’s ever-more-baroque implementation of the principle this weekend, and I discovered that it offers a quick and cheap way to discover just how famous Google thinks you are.

To understand how Google got in the “famous or not” business requires a dive into the search engine’s stutter-step implementation of the EU requirement.  In China, of course, when Google is required to suppress a link, it includes a warning on the results page, saying in essence that the results have been censored.  Google originally planned to do the same in response to European censorship.  But the European data protection censors didn’t like that kind of transparency.  They thought that the notice, even if it didn’t actually say what had been suppressed, would stigmatize Europeans who invoked the right to be forgotten.  (That, and it might remind searchers that their access to data was being restricted by European law.)

Google caved, mostly.  But it left in place a vestige of its original policy.  Now, it includes the following warning on its European results pages whenever any name is searched for:  ”Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.  Learn more.”

But that policy isn’t implemented across the board.  As Google’s global privacy counsel explained a month ago, “Most name queries are for famous people and such searches are very rarely affected by a removal, due to the role played by these persons in public life, we have made a pragmatic choice not to show this notice by default for known celebrities or public figures.”

So there you have it.  Somewhere, Google has an algorithm for deciding who is a celebrity or public figure and who is not.  To find out whether you made the grade, all you have to do is go to Google.co.uk, and type in your name.  Then look at the bottom of the page for the tag that says, “Some results may have been removed” etc.  If it’s not there, apparently you’re a public figure in Google’s eyes.  If it is, well, you’d better get working on your SEO techniques.

I found this when I searched for myself and didn’t see the “some results” tag-of-ignominy.  I thought that was weird, so I ran a few other names.  And it looks as though Google is making a cut based on number of name searches, but as Google’s counsel more or less admitted in his letter, the system is still pretty rough.  Maybe it will get better.  But why wait until it comes out of beta?  Knowing Google, that could be years.

Let’s ask now who makes it past Google’s equivalent of the red velvet rope.  Here’s my quick census:

Google-Famous:  Stewart Baker, Ben Wittes, Eugene Volokh, Jack Goldsmith, Orin Kerr, Kent Walker, Nicole Wong, Declan McCullagh, Peter Swire, Annie Anton, Dan Geer (cybersecurity guru), Jim Lewis (ditto), Raj De (NSA’s GC), Dianne Feinstein (Senate intelligence committee chair), David Hoffman (upcoming guest on the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast), Chris Soghoian, James X. Dempsey (CDT senior counsel, member of Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board).

Not Google-Famous:  Nuala O’Connor (head of CDT), Michael Daniel (White House cybersecurity czar), Bob Litt (DNI’s general counsel), John P. Carlin (Assistant AG for National Security), Michael J. Rogers (chair of House intelligence committee), David Medine (chair of Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board), Michael Vatis (cohost of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast), Jason Weinstein (ditto), Ellen Nakashima (astonishingly prolific Washington Post national security reporter).

It’s pretty clear that Google is struggling with the old saw, “On the Internet, everyone is famous for fifteen people.”  But it’s still hard to see exactly where the line is being drawn.

For further irony, consider Max Mosley, who is internet-famous mainly for the video of his multi-hour, multi-hooker, sadomasochistic orgy and for his successful campaign to force Google to suppress links to those pictures.  His search results are being censored. But he’s now so famous that Google gives us no warning – not even that they might be bowdlerized.  That can’t make sense.

But why should I have all the fun?  Why not google yourself first (don’t pretend you won’t) and then your friends and acquaintances?  Then list any additional surprises in the comments.