Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Searching for truth

Many of you will be aware of the decision recently by the European Courts to force Google to carry out some quite specific actions in pursuance of individuals' rights to privacy.  Those of you from across the pond have probably felt that the ruling is a strange one, given the US Constitution and its position on free speech.  While I like my privacy and guard my rights to it assiduously, I'm also a great proponent of free speech too, so I'm pretty much with you on this one.

In a nutshell, as far as I can tell - and I'm no lawyer, I'm an engineer who writes Sci-Fi thrillers and comedic novels, for goodness sake - the ruling states that Google has to remove links to web pages that intrude on individual persons' that are no longer adequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.  Individual's have to apply to Google to have the links they don't like taken down and if Google thinks they have a good case then they will do so.  Apparently Google are wading through about one thousand applications a day to achieve this and have to date been asked to remove more than a quarter of a million links in 70,000 applications made so far.  Allegedly some of the applications upheld have included a convicted sex offender, apparently offended by links that tells the world what he's been convicted of, and an article about the brother of a high profile British politician converting to Islam. While anyone's religious convictions are truly personal, if their brother is one of the most influential politicians in the country then they lose some of their rights to be anonymous, in many eyes. Anyone convicted of sex crimes should expect that information to stay in the public domain forever, unless they can prove that the conviction was false. That's a decision for the courts though, not Google.

One American citizen has shown his irritation at the European ruling by setting up a website - Hidden from Google - which promptly aims to provide links back to the sites that Google is now suppressing.  Because the order from the court was simply to remove the Google search links, not to remove the sites, so he's simply reposted them. And because it is a new link, it will now reappear in Google listings until Google are requested to remove the link again. There's sufficient defamatory laws that cater for sites that tell lies about individuals, but apparently lies aren't the issue here, it's people hiding from the truth - maybe.  Challenging lies online can be a costly business and unless we have sufficient resources behind us most of us can only hope that appealing to the owner of the website or the host will work.  Running through the courts isn't an option for most of us, no matter how right we are. Incidentally Google removes links to websites every day without court rulings - sites that try to trick consumers, sites with embedded malware, sites that promote illegal activities. They do so of their own volition.

So despite Google's attempt at complying with the European courts, their attempts are being quite legally thwarted.  Probably just as well, as the ruling doesn't quite make sense.  And it does seem a little one-sided, Google may be the biggest, best known search engine in the world, its name now a noun, verb and adjective, but it isn't the only one.  I'm not aware that Yahoo or Bing have been ordered to edit their listings, so even if Hidden from Google didn't exist, individual's with a nose for a story could simply search one of the other engines. Interestingly, I'm not aware that either Yahoo or Microsoft have complained of the oversight regarding their search engines by the European courts. Of course many people don't rate these other engines, based on the size of Google.  That may or may not be a valid point and one that's difficult to test, but fear not, help is at hand.

Microsoft are clearly pushing to get their search engine, Bing, to be the engine of choice for more people.  Apple are using it on their products, probably because they dislike Google at least as much as they rate Bing, and of course any Windows machine has Bing as the default search engine anyway.  Is it as good as Google?  Microsoft seem to think so and for the second year running they've run a completion to see if users can tell which search engine is best for them.  If you mosey onto Bing It On you'll find you can carry out five consecutive searches for anything you want - no holds barred.  After inputting each search term the software runs off and applies it to both Google and Bing, giving you both results side by side.  You are then asked to vote on which set of results gives, in your opinion, the better set of links.  You don't find out until after the fifth search which engine you have been voting for.  I ran the test and found that I couldn't prefer one result over the other on one search, I favoured Google in two and Bing in the other two.  So I was a draw.  My wife had one result she couldn't choose between, one favouring Google and the remaining three favouring Bing.  So Bing won her round.  According to the website, Bing is consistently voted the better results.  Why not try the challenge while its still running, and if you find you prefer Bing, why not give it a go more often.  At least it isn't artificially suppressing links, but to be fair, it hasn't been compelled to by the European courts.

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