Spat between Liberals and Tories over Google reveals confusion about how search works

Reports that the Liberal government asked Google to remove search results leading to some previous pages from Stephen Harper's time as prime minister sparked outrage from the Conservative Opposition and broader questions about internet content control.

Updating search results a 'commonly used tool' for website administrators, Google says

Google's head of public affairs in Canada says reports that the Liberal government asked the company to remove search results related to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper were a 'mischaracterization.' (Canadian Press)

News that the Liberal government has asked Google to remove search results leading to web pages from Stephen Harper's time as prime minister sparked outrage from the Opposition Conservatives on Thursday. 

But the government said it was simply doing some routine technical housekeeping to ensure the most up-to-date content appears when people search for information on government websites. 

The issue has led to questions about who can remove what from the internet, as well as some confusion about what actually happened. 

CBC News asked Aaron Brindle, Google's head of public affairs in Canada, for his perspective.   

Full disclosure: Brindle was senior producer of CBC's The Current prior to joining Google. 

Does Google delete web content? 

Brindle said reports suggesting Google was asked to remove website content were a "mischaracterization of the process."  As a search engine, Google has "no control over publishers' websites" and does not remove web pages from the internet, he said. 

Aaron Brindle, head of public affairs for Google Canada, says Google searches are meant to 'reflect what's on the web.' (Aaron Brindle/LinkedIn)

What it does, he said, is try to make sure that when people use Google to search the internet, they find the most recently updated versions of the websites and pages they're looking for. 

"Essentially we have a web crawling bot that will update search results to reflect the content of the web," Brindle said. "We will crawl certain sites more frequently, for example, news sites, to make sure that the content is up to date."

The government, like all other website operators, can submit an online form to request that older search results don't appear instead.

"It's a commonly used tool," he said, "telling Google to kind of 'clear the cache.'"

But don't Google searches automatically find the most up-to-date versions?

Not necessarily, Brindle said. 

"Just to be clear, this is a bot," he said. "It's not a person, it's an automated process."

"The reality is … our web crawlers don't index every website continuously," he said. "We do look at sites that are frequently updating their content and we try and make sure that those are reflected with updates more regularly." 

"The bottom line here," Brindle said, "is that what we want to do on Google search [is] to reflect what's on the web." 

Can the government ask for searches leading to other websites to be deleted?

Anyone, including the government, asking Google to remove searches leading to websites other than their own (for example, if someone believes a news site has published something defamatory), causes Google to begin a stringent process, Brindle said. 

"We restrict removals we make from search results to a very limited short list," he said. "We do take requests to remove search [results] very, very seriously."

Google tracks search removal requests from governments around the world, including Canada, and publishes those numbers in a "transparency report."

The latest transparency report publicly available covers the time period from 2009 to June 2015. According to that report, Canadian "government agencies and law enforcement" made 77 requests for information to be removed from Google searches in the six-month period between January and June 2015. Reasons cited for the requests included copyright, privacy and security and defamation — but more than half the requests were classified as "other."     

Are Google's policies for making content unsearchable the same everywhere?

There are two types of content that Google will remove from its search results everywhere in the world: anything that shows child sexual abuse and "content in response to valid legal requests," including copyright violations. 

Google's removal policy also states it "may remove certain types of sensitive personal information" that "creates significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, or other specific harms." 

But Google is also bound by the "law of the land" in every country, Brindle said. For example, the European Union has "right to be forgotten" legislation, in which people can have past personal information removed from online searches under certain circumstances. Google has previously expressed disappointment with a court ruling related to that legislation. 

Stopping content from appearing in Google searches doesn't remove it from the internet, the company says in its online help section. It advises people to contact the website administrator or webmaster about content concerns. 

"Even if Google deletes the site or image from our search results, the web page still exists and can be found through the URL to the site, social media sharing, or other search engines," the help page says. "This is why your best option is to contact the webmaster, who can remove the page entirely."

Clarifications

  • A previous version said the Canadian government made 77 requests for information to be removed from Google searches, but omitted the time period. The transparency report states that 77 requests were made between January 2015 and June 2015.
    Jun 18, 2016 4:03 PM ET

With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters