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Removing a Search Result: An Ethics Case Study

Google Sign (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

Google Sign (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

An Ethics Case Study

Irina Raicu

Sometime in the early 1980s, a woman is raped, and a suspect is caught. The woman decides to allow her name to be used in media coverage of the attack because she wants to combat the stigma that rape victims face. She is young, and she wants to be brave. The trial of the suspect garners some coverage in the local media but none beyond that. The accused suspect is convicted and goes to prison.

The woman struggles with the trauma of the experience, but moves on. Her job takes her to Europe, where she gets married; while she lives in London, she returns to her hometown in the U.S. to visit family multiple times each year. Thirty years later, her family members and her oldest friends know that she was once raped, but her employer, co-workers, neighbors, and more recent friends do not—or, at least, she doesn’t tell them.

One day, however, in 2015, she reads an article that advises readers to Google their own names in order to see what others would see if they were to run such a search (as employers, doctors, and other people increasingly do). She does that. She finds that the third entry that comes up in the Google search on her name is an article from her hometown’s local newspaper, written during the rape trial, detailing the rape case. Her name, of course, is included in the article.

The woman is upset; after all these years, she would like to be able to disclose her rape when and if and to whomever she wants. She has heard about a recent decision of the European Court of Justice, which allows individuals residing in Europe to submit requests to Google asking the company to remove certain results from searches on their names (not all searches—only those involving their names as search terms), if those results are inaccurate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or “excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing.” The ruling requires Google to also consider the public interest in retaining the particular result in the search, as it decides whether or not to fulfill each individual request.

The woman submits Google’s online form to request the removal of the link to the article about the rape trial from searches on her name.

Should Google comply? What are the factors that shape your decision?

As you consider your answer, please review this article about ethical decision-making and the questions that we need to examine when faced with an ethical issue.

For more details about the court decision (and a link to it), see The Guardian’s “Explaining the ‘right to be forgotten’—the newest cultural shibboleth.”

Irina Raicu is the Internet ethics director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

Apr 14, 2015

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