Since the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling came into force in May 2014, Google has received thousands of removal requests from individuals across Europe. The search engine giant discloses the number and types of requests in a newly published ‘Transparency Report’. Here, I go through Google’s latest report, and explore how the UK is being affected by the EU’s ruling.
The UK presents the third highest number of requests for URL removal from search results under the European “right to be forgotten” ruling, after France and Germany, according to Google’s latest Transparency Report. Around two-thirds of these requests have been rejected by the search engine.
How did the “right to be forgotten” come about?
It all started around three years ago when a Spanish attorney requested the removal of a link to old newspaper about an auction for his home. The article in question referred to a debt that he had subsequently paid. The Spaniard did not want these posts to appear when someone “Googled” him, as he was no longer in debt.
Spain’s Data Protection Agency decided that while the newspapers should be able to retain the articles, as they were true, Google should remove any link to the attorney’s name.
The case ended up at the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ made the judgment that search engines should not link to posts 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”. As a consequence:
- In 2012, the European Commission (EU) published proposals for a “right to be forgotten” law , giving people the right to request removal of data about themselves.
- The new law came as part of a wide-ranging rebuild of the Commission’s 1995 Data Protection Directive.
- Google and other search engines are now forced to remove certain links from search results, unless they have legitimate reason to act differently.
- According to the BBC, Google warned about the consequences of allowing people to “clear” their personal history online, creating an anti-censorship campaign.
- In May 2014, Google launched the removal request process and from mid-June 2014 information started to be removed.
- Although algorithms govern Google’s search result, in this case data removal is decided by people, while disagreements about removals are overseen by national data protection agencies.
Who makes use of the “Right to be Forgotten” and how?
Some of the categories that claim this law are:
- Potential candidates being Googled by employers
- Domestic violence victims
- Spent convictions
- Asylum seekers
According to Google, EU citizens that are keen to remove private data from the search engine must:
- Fill out an online form
- Provide links to the relevant material
- Name their country of origin
- Give a reason why the links should be removed
- Submit photo ID to help Google avoid fraudulent applications
Removal requests around Europe
Google’s Transparency Report illustrates that since the company launched the removal request process in May 2014, it has received 174,226 requests concerning 602,479 URLs – an average of 100 requests per day, of which Google has agreed to remove 41.5 per cent.
In cases where people are not satisfied with Google’s response, the alternative is to contact their local protection authority for further advice.
A total of 22,467 requests have been made by British citizens, asking Google to remove more than 80,000 URLs from its search results, under the “right to be forgotten” ruling. According to Google’s statistics, the company has removed over 35 per cent of unwanted links, making decisions in favour of the British applicants – who make up the third highest number of referrals in Europe, after the French and Germans.
Google will not delete articles that are merely embarrassing, or those related to business as opposed to private matters.
Case studies: Google has published details of some of the UK requests, for example:
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- Another concerned a man who “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.”
France, often described as having strict privacy laws, ranks first in Europe. More than 34,000 removal requests have been made, of which over 50 per cent have been accepted by Google. A total of 105,593 URLs removal requests have been made so far.
Google has received more “right to be forgotten” requests from individuals in France than anywhere else in Europe.
Case studies: Even though French media is traditionally known for respecting the personal lives, recent cases appear to challenge this premise.
- One case comes from French magazine ‘Closer’, which published topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge while she was on holiday. The Royal couple sued the magazine.
- The same magazine was ordered to pay damages of £12,400 (€15,000) to the actress, Julie Gayet after it published photos which showed President Francois Hollande leaving her apartment, following a romantic affair.
According to Google, Germany is the country with the second highest number of removal requests. Since the new ruling came in Google has received more than 29,528 requests of which 50 per cent have been accepted.
Case study: Google presents the following case in its statistics:
- “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.”
According to Google statistics, Facebook, with 4,153 URLs removed, is the most impacted by the new ruling in Europe, while YouTube was among the sites with the highest number of URLs removed, demonstrating 2,692 posts deleted.
“Right to be forgotten” …. how realistic?
The UK’s Ministry of Justice declared that the new law “raises unrealistic and unfair expectations”. Many concerns over censorship of people have been raised.
Some nations, including the United States, have established laws related to freedom of speech, which would be challenging to reconcile with the “right to be forgotten”. Some academics claim that only a limited form of the “right to be forgotten” could be reconcilable with US constitutional law.
Continental Europe demonstrates a stronger balance towards privacy than in the UK. For example, the right of an individual to remove data that he or she has submitted.
A ruling like the ECJ’s is difficult to be implemented in the US. The BBC reported on a comment in the New Yorker stating: “In Europe, the right to privacy trumps freedom of speech: the reverse if true in the United States.”