In May of 2014, the European Union approved a law known as the right to be forgotten. Under this law, Google and other search engines are required to comply with requests from individuals to remove outdated or inaccurate information from search results under certain circumstances. The right to be forgotten extends only to information that is “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing at issue carried out by the operator of the search engine.” It also only applies in the European Union — but that may change in the future.
The law has been great news for individuals in the European Union that have been plagued with troublesome information about themselves online, but it is not without its limitations. For example, links are removed from the search engine, but the content will still remain online. The removal only applies in the European Union, and the links are only removed from European Union versions of Google: other worldwide links will still remain.
How the Right to be Forgotten is Working Today
At the time of the ruling, Google was opposed to the law, and presumably, still is, but the search engine has clearly complied with the right to be forgotten. Thousands of links have been removed to date, and the search engine has formed a process of review that allows individuals to request removal through an online web form. Links are often removed quickly and disappear without a trace — except for a notation message that says: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.”
Easy cases, such as a photo of a woman sunbathing topless that was published without her permission, or a petty shoplifting case, are sent to a large team of lawyers, paralegals, and engineers, and are typically approved without delay. More difficult cases are reviewed by a senior panel, and experts may be called in for help. This panel includes Google executives, privacy and free speech experts, and even an ethics philosopher. Ultimately, tough cases are often called to a vote. There is an appeals process allowing citizens to appeal to a supervisory authority or the judicial authority if they are denied and do not agree with the decision.
Since the law began, more than 285,000 individual requests have been made representing a request to remove more than a million pages from Google. Almost all (95%) have come from the everyday public, with less than 5% of the requests belonging to criminals, politicians, and high profile figures.
Most of the requests involve delisting links from individual name searches, typically involving private or personal information. Overall, 58.8% of flagged links have been removed. Some requests have come from criminals including murders, rapists, and terrorists. Less than 1% of the requests were successful in removing information about a serious crime, public figure, political information, or child protection. More links have been removed from Facebook than any other website.
Notable examples of individuals who have successfully used the right to be forgotten ruling include a woman who appeared in news articles after her husband’s death, as well as a person who contracted HIV more than 10 years ago.
Some removals have sparked public outcry. In July 2014, Google reversed its decision to remove links about a controversial soccer referee from The Guardian online. Google also restored links to a BBC article about former Merrill Lynch Chief Executive Officer E. Stanley O’Neal’s firing.
The limitations of the ruling are being explored. For example, the ruling does not allow individuals convicted of serious crimes to have links removed. However, other individuals who are named in the articles can request their removal — and that means that all criminals have to do is ask other named individuals, which may include friends and family, to make a successful request.
Another limitation: individuals need to make a request with each search engine, including Bing and Yahoo!, which have their own removals process. Additionally, removal from any search engine does not mean removal from the Internet: the content will still remain. That means on a prominent news site like the Daily Mail or Guardian, a user can simply use the search function to find articles about high profile individuals.
Could the Right to be Forgotten Happen in the United States?
A year after the European Union ruling, we’re seeing a push to bring the same right to the United States. Consumer Watchdog has fired the first shot in what is sure to be an interesting battle in the right to be forgotten in the United States. This week, the group lodged a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google, citing that the search engine is engaging in anti-consumer behavior and being unfair and deceptive by not giving U.S. users the same individual privacy rights that are now offered to European Union citizens.
It’s not yet clear where this complaint will go, and if the FTC will push Google to extend the right to be forgotten to U.S. users or not. However, it’s important to note that there have already been developments in this area:
Google has long had a policy of removing certain content from search results. The search engine removes child sexual abuse images, content under valid legal requests (such as copyright violations), as well as personal information. Personal information removed includes ID numbers such as social security numbers, financial information, or images of signatures.
In June, Google announced a new solution for revenge porn victims. Now, individuals can request that Google remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google search results. The request can be made using an online form.
Beyond search engines, California’s Internet eraser law requires websites to allow users 18 and under the ability to remove posts, videos, and photos easily and permanently. However, social media posts may be archived by other services and preserved before users are able to delete them.
Whether the right to be forgotten is extended to the United States or not, it is clear that it would be welcomed by many individuals. In a 2014 survey, SurveyMonkey revealed that 73.81% of individuals would take advantage of a feature to delete or remove their name or identity from search results.