A report published this week by a cross party committee of MPs and peers recommended that legislation should be introduced to force Google to censor search results, particularly in relation to protecting privacy. The rise and rise of social networking and the Internet has meant that cases such as the super injunction cases last year have spread virally over social media – Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc. So, despite the law insisting that identities and personal details were not revealed, and the press bending over backwards to abide by the rulings, the news got out anyway. The Ryan Giggs super injunction was tweeted over 75,000 times before it finally became obvious that the injunction could not be made to work.

It was following this that the PM set up the cross party committee to investigate free speech and privacy. However, the recommendation to force Google et al to censor results is likely to come under fire.

The suggestion raises several issues.

Firstly, whilst it may currently be legislation regarding privacy, how easily could this legislation be amended to be more far-reaching? Censorship in any form bodes ill, and freedom of speech should be fought for. There is no reason for content that has been considered to be an invasion of privacy not to be removed, or for heartier self-regulation to take place, but attempting to prevent gossip – which appears intrinsic to human nature – is likely to continue to be an onerous task, and it is inevitable that we will see more and more online reputation management agencies appearing to protect brands and so on.

But should a search engine (or Facebook or Twitter) be forced into a level of censorship determined often only by a single judge? What if there is an appeal or what if the content should be released in the public interest? How could this possibly be policed and enforced?

As a spokesperson for Google said, “Requiring search engines to screen the content of their web pages would be like asking phone companies to listen in on every call made across their networks for potentially suspicious activity.”

The committee is arguing for protection of privacy laws to go beyond the current ‘press’ eg newspapers, magazines, TV etc and also include Twitter, Facebook, Google and so on. As we move into an age of higher bandwidth and hence more innovation, the likelihood is that new social networking sites and tools will continue to spring up on an almost hourly basis. Endeavouring to imagine or legislate for all new tools, apps, sites could prove not only burdensome but actually impossible.

How could such censorship affect businesses or brands? The vast majority of the high profile cases have concerned celebrities and many brands have had to distance themselves from their celeb endorsers after bad news has been leaked or made its way onto the Internet, where it can now spread far more quickly than ever before. Google currently offers the chance to report a page or offensive etc content, and the argument from the Big G is that no further action is required beyond the ‘victim’ (for want of a better word) requesting the removal of said content.

The vagaries of Google, as we all know, mean that frequently such requests appear to be ignored, or the process drags on interminably whilst the content just sits there in the SERPs. The protection of celebrities’ i.e. individuals’ privacy may need to come above protection of business and brands reputation but does existing legislation not already cover this without requiring to force censorship on some of the biggest sites in the world?

Do you feel that the UK government should have a say in what the search engines and social networks are permitted to show to UK audiences?

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology