According to a new transparency report published on the one-year anniversary of the E.U. court ruling that created the so-called “right to be forgotten,” Google has processed just over a quarter million requests for search result deletions. Approximately 30% of these requests have been granted.
In May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union made a historic ruling that gives E.U. citizens the right to request the removal of search results that contain “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” information about them. The right is not absolute – deletions are only performed on a case-by-case basis following a review, usually taking a period of two to three weeks. Requests are granted only if Google judges that the person’s right to privacy trumps public interest to view the link.
Naturally, the ruling has been highly controversial. The European Commission’s Viviane Reding said it “is a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans.” James Ball of The Guardian was far more critical, stating, “the ruling has created a stopwatch on free expression – our journalism can be found only until someone asks for it to be hidden.” There is also concern that the final decision about whether to remove a link lies in the hands of paralegals at private corporations like Google, and not a judge in a court of law.
What, exactly, is disappearing online?
The Google Transparency Report highlights a number of anonymized right-to-be-forgotten requests to help the public better understand exactly what’s disappearing from the Internet. They include:
- In Belgium, and individual was convicted of a “serious crime,” but that conviction was later overturned on appeal. Google granted that person’s request for deletion.
- In Hungary, a public official requested the removal of recent articles about a decades-old criminal conviction. Google did not approve the request.
- In Germany, a rape victim requested the removal of a link to a news article about the crime committed against her. Google granted the request.
- In the United Kingdom, a public official requested the deletion of a link to a student petition calling for his ousting. Google did not approve the request.
You can view more examples on the Google Transparency Report.
Why does this matter in the U.S.?
For now, the E.U.’s right to be forgotten only applies to search results delivered in Europe. But that’s not sufficient for privacy regulators in Europe, who want offending results pertaining to Europeans to be scrubbed worldwide. “(Limiting) delisting to E.U. domains on the grounds that users tend to access search engines via their national domains cannot be considered a sufficient means to satisfactorily guarantee the rights of data subjects according to the ruling,” the Article 29 Working Party, the E.U.’s official data protection agency, wrote back in November 2014.
The protections granted by the U.S. Constitution likely shields Google's business practices here at home. But it’s important to remember that Google is not just an American company – it’s a global one, subject to the laws of the countries it operates in. It’s not exactly clear who would win out if the two conflicting interest truly came to a head, as European regulators have the ability to impose heavy fines on the company.
“This is a line that U.S. companies will be very reluctant to cross,” Ian Brown, a professor of information security and privacy at the University of Oxford, told The New York Times. “It will come down to who blinks first. The companies or the privacy regulators.”
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