Will Google disclose censored search results under new EU law? Too soon to say

A public guessing game is underway about how Google(s goog) will respond to a bombshell court decision that lets Europeans delete search results. So far, the most popular theory is that the company will display notices when a result has been removed.

The decision, in case you’re unfamiliar, came via the European Court of Justice, which ruled in May that a Spanish man could force Google to take down a search result about his 1998 bankruptcy. Almost immediately, tens of thousands of people across Europe flooded Google with their own requests.

Even though the court’s ruling amounts to a new tool to erase history, some are taking comfort in the fact that the search results might not disappear altogether.

Kashmir Hill at Forbes, for instance, suggests that Google will do the same thing it does when it receives a copyright notice, which is to tell users what happened to the missing search result. For example, here is what a Google page looks like if you search for “When Doves Cry free MP3”:

Google DMCA result

As you can see, the bottom results no longer provide a link, but they do say that a result used to be there. As Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand pointed out, Google posts similar censorship notices when it removes a search result in order to comply with a national law like Germany’s ban on Nazi-related websites.

This may explain the ongoing speculation, such as the report in the Guardian this weekend, that Google will take a similar approach to “right to be forgotten” censorship requests.

Update: Google has told SearchEngineLand that it will disclose removal requests.

What will “forgotten” really mean?

Even though Europeans can now scrub their search history, it’s comforting to think Google will still leave a fingerprint in its listing where the results once stood. Unfortunately, we still don’t know that’s what will take place.

Aside from a May 30 interview with the Financial Times, in which CEO Larry Page warned of “unintended consequences” of Europe’s new policy, Google has not spoken publicly about how it will handle the holes in its search results that arise from the “right to be forgotten.” And, as noted above, people at the company have told SearchEngineLand in May that it will post disclosures. The company did not reply to a request on Monday for further details.

European regulators, meanwhile, have yet to say whether the law will even allow Google to display a notice about about the missing search results in the first place. After all, doing so might undermine the “right to forgotten.” For instance, will people like Max Mosley, who keeps suing Google to purge evidence of a sex scandal, tolerate a notice about removed results?

This muddle shows once again why the European court’s ruling was badly conceived in the first place. The court’s bland, bureaucratic instructions for Google to remove results that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive” are of little help, and simply open a Pandora’s box of legal uncertainty.

So far, Europe’s political leaders have done little to remedy the situation, instead treating the ruling as a pretext for further grandstanding against U.S. tech companies. In the meantime, the removal requests will continue to pile up and Europeans will be left to wonder about what parts of its past are vanishing from the internet.

This story was corrected at 5pmET to note that Google has said it will include the disclosures.