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Are you Google famous? A look into the search engine’s algorithm in a post-right to be forgotten world

2 Nov , 2014  | by:

Fame is often a subjective inquiry. A famous person to one person can be a stranger to another. Someone considered famous in one country can be an average citizen in another. But Google, while implementing the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) ruling in Google, Inc. v. Mario Costeja González regarding the right to be forgotten, has attempted to make an objective determination of who the public considers famous.

As first brought up by Stewart Baker of The Washington Post’s Volohk Conspiracy, simply Google-ing a name in a European Google search engine will allow you to see whether Google considers that person famous. Since users in the EU can request for certain search results to be removed, many searches using Google in the EU will yield the following warning at the bottom of the search result page: “Some results have been removed in accordance with the law of European data protection. More info.” But Google is less likely to remove search results for public officials or public figures. Therefore, the disclaimer about search results being removed will not be present when searching for a “famous” person in the EU.

Basically, whether the disclaimer is present will tell you if Google thinks the searched person is famous. If the disclaimer appears, Google does not consider him/her famous. If the disclaimer does not appear, Google considers him/her famous.

Google’s global privacy counsel explained this policy: “[M]ost name queries are for famous people – people search disproportionately for celebrities and other public figures. As 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.”

It is unknown how the Google algorithm actually makes this “fame” determination, but let’s see how this policy plays out. I searched the following terms on Spain’s version of Google, “Google.es.”

  • “Michael Lambert” = Disclaimer present, so not famous
  • “Michael J. Lambert” = No disclaimer present, so famous
  • “Anna Berlee” (founder of the Interdisciplinary Internet Institute) = Not famous
  • “Barack Obama” = Famous
  • “Mariano Rajoy Brey” (Prime Minister of Spain) = Famous
  • “Les Miles” (football coach of the Louisiana State University football team) = Famous
  • “Ron Klain” (newly-appointed Ebola czar in the U.S.) = Famous

This is one of the many interesting policies Google has implemented in the wake of the González decision. Google seemed to correctly label the above people in their respective categories, but I’m sure there are examples in which a person is locally famous but not considered famous in the eyes of Google. After all, fame is in the eye of the beholder.

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