Google has typically had a hands-off approach when it comes to removing content from search results, but this week the company quietly decided to add a new category to that list. According to Bloomberg, an update on Google’s policy page reveals the company has begun purging “confidential, personal medical records of private people” from its search results pages.
Previously, Google had only removed web pages with identifying financial information, such as credit card numbers or bank accounts as well as images of signatures and content that violates copyright laws. It also removes sexually explicit images that were uploaded or shared without consent.
The leaking of private medical records can be extremely damaging to the victims, both financially and emotionally, with future prospects affected and private lives of the vulnerable exposed. Given that Google’s indexing system will capture anything that’s publicly accessible on the internet, leaks such as those created by an Indian pathology lab which uploaded more than 43,000 patient records in December, including names and HIV blood test results, can be particularly damaging.
The last change to the removal policy was made in 2015 with the addition of “nude or sexually explicit images that were uploaded or shared without your consent” to cover so-called revenge porn.
The new addition to Google’s scrubbing policy marks a change from the search company’s traditional hands-off, algorithmic approach which resists attempts at censorship. This has come under scrutiny over the last few years due to the spread of fake news and misinformation. Google recently adjusted its search results to down-rank contested information such as fake news.
For many Google has become the gateway to the internet, meaning that removal from the company’s search results effectively scrubs them from the internet. While the information will still be accessible via other search engines or directly, other associated actions including the European right to be forgotten have seen being removed from Google’s search results as good enough to affect change.
Google has recently come under fire for its search and services such as YouTube being used to spread extremist content, as well as its ad network being used to fund sites dedicated to spreading hate speech and propaganda. The company introduced new measures for YouTube to tackle the spread of terrorist material, while its head of European operations apologized after adverts for major brands appeared next to extremist material.