Google’s latest Transparency Report has revealed that under ‘right to be forgotten,’ rule, the UK comes third to only France and Germany for the number of requests for URL removal from search results.
Google has rejected two thirds of these requests.
How was the Right to be Forgotten Established?
The right to be forgotten was established through the case of a Spanish attorney who three years ago, asked Google to remove a link to an old newspaper story on the auction of his home, referring to a debt that he has since met. As he was no longer in debt, he did not want these posts to appear the next time someone decided to ‘Google’ his name.
The attorney took his case to Spain’s Data Protection Agency. They decided that Google should remove links to the articles for his name, however they allowed the newspapers to retain the pieces, because they were true.
The case evolved from there to reach the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The judgement the ECJ made demanded that search engines should not post links that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.” Consequently:
- Proposals for a “right to be forgotten” law were published by the European Commission (EU) in 2012, affording people the right to request that data concerning themselves be removed.
- Unless they have a legitimate reason not to do so, search engines such as Google are now required to remove certain links from search results.
- As reported by the BBC, Google warned against spurring an anti-censorship campaign, by allowing users to “clear” their online history.
- May 2014 saw Google initiate the removal request process, with information removed from mid-June 2014 onwards.
- Despite Google Search results being governed by algorithms, people decide data to be removed in this case. In the event of a disagreement, national data protection agencies have the final say on removals.
Who Takes Advantage of the Right to be Forgotten and How?
Some of the categories claiming this law include:
- Asylum seekers.
- Spent convictions.
- Victims of domestic violence.
- Employers who Google potential candidates.
Google says that if a citizen of the EU wants to request the removal of private data from the search engine, they need to:
- Complete a form online.
- Provide links to the relevant content.
- Say which country they originate from.
- Detail why the link should be removed by supplying adequate justification.
- In order to aid Google in avoiding fraudulent applications, submit photo ID with the request.
Removal Requests throughout Europe
According to the Transparency Report since May 2014, the search engine has been handed 174,226 requests concerning 602,479 URLs, amounting to 100 requests on average, per day. 41.5% have been removed by the search engine. Proving that challenging and removing content is a very complex process.
British citizens have made 22,467 requests in total to Google, asking them to remove over 80,000 URLs from its search results under conditions of the right to be forgotten. The Transparency Report suggests that in 35% of cases, Google decided to act in favour of British citizens (who’ve lodged more referrals than anyone else in Europe, bar France and Germany) and remove the unwanted links.
As the following case studies illustrate, Google won’t remove articles that concern business rather than private matters, or those that a user only wants to remove because they are embarrassing:
- “A doctor requested we remove more than 50 links to newspaper articles about a botched procedure. Three pages that contained personal information about the doctor but did not mention the procedure have been removed from search results for his name. The rest of the links to reports on the incident remain in search results.”
- “A media professional requested that we remove four links to articles reporting on embarrassing content he posted to the internet. We did not remove the pages from search results.”
- “An individual asked us to remove links to articles on the Internet that reference his dismissal for sexual crimes committed on the job. We did not remove the pages from search results.”
- One case concerned a man that “asked that we remove a link to a news summary about a local magistrate’s decisions, which included the man’s guilty verdict. Under the UK Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, this conviction has been spent. We have removed the page from search results for his name.”
A country that is commonly said to have the strictest privacy laws, France came top of the list. Over 34,000 requests for removal have been submitted to Google, of which the search engine accepted more than 50%. With 105,593 URLs removal requests made in total so far, France has sent more right to be forgotten requests to Google than any other nation in Europe.
Despite the fact that traditionally, the French media is known for respecting personal lives, a slew of cases have recently come to light that seem to challenge this long held norm:
- Closer Magazine (a French publication) was forced to pay actress Julie Gayet damages equalling £12,400 (€15,000), following it’s decision to publish photos which pictured French President Francois Hollande, exiting her apartment after a romantic affair.
- Another case saw the same publication sued by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, after it published pictures of the Duchess topless whilst she was on holiday.
Google statistics suggest that Germany holds the second highest number of requests for removal. Since May 2014, the Transparency Report outlines that 29,528 requests have been submitted by German citizens, 50% of which have been accepted by the search engine.
In its statistics, Google presents the following case study:
- “A victim of rape asked us to remove a link to a newspaper article about the crime. We have removed the page from search results for the individual’s name.”
Meanwhile, Facebook is the site most effected by the right to be forgotten with 4,153 URLs removed, and YouTube also ranked highly on the list of websites with the highest number of URLs removed, as Google deleted 2,692 posts from the video-sharing site.
How Realistic is the Right to be Forgotten?
In the UK, the Ministry of Justice argued that the ruling “raises unrealistic and unfair expectations”. Many concerns over censorship of people have been raised.”
Furthermore, for nations such as the United States who have enshrined freedom of speech rules into law, it would prove challenging to reconcile those freedoms with the right to be forgotten. Various academics have gone on to argue that in the US, only a restricted form of the right to be forgotten, due to the provision’s made in the country’s constitution protecting freedom of speech.
One New Yorker quoted by the BBC proved how difficult the right to be forgotten would be to roll out in the US. That New Yorker argued that “in Europe, the right to privacy trumps freedom of speech: the reverse is true in the United States.”
Meanwhile, in the balance between privacy and freedom of speech, continental Europe always tilted even more in favour of the former than the UK. The matter of whether to remove data submitted by an individual, for example, would be considered differently on opposing sides of the Channel.
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