November 19, 2014

Should We Have the Right to be Forgotten?

By Megan G.

As of September of this year, member states of European Union may legally seek the removal of certain links in Google result pages.  This ruling has been dubbed “the Right to be Forgotten,” because individuals may now request that Google takes down irrelevant, out-of-date, and most often defamatory links regarding the individuals’ names.  The SERPs “forget” these articles, and remove them from public access.  The removal of such links has also been referred to as “search de-listing.”  While Google has acquiesced to some of these requests, the company has refused to take down certain links, such as less-than-stellar reviews of individuals’ works or companies. 

An Attack on Google’s Main Domain 

Recently, Google France has faced daily fines of €1,000 for not removing a selection of links from its global index.  This stink has been raised by Dan Shefet, a Danish lawyer who lives in France.  His firm has suffered a libelous campaign at the hands of various websites and blogs listed in Google’s search pages, and Shefet requested the removal of the links to these mudslingers.  Google France conceded, removing the results from French SERPs.  However, Shefet was not satisfied.  His international law firm serves clients in several countries, and wishes the defamatory links to be removed from Google’s main, U.S.-based domain. 

In relation to the recent news on net neutrality, Google’s compliance with the French court spells global censorship of its SERPs—and that includes the censoring of the United States’ free, open Internet.  A U.S.-based company like Google is hard-pressed to allow such action, and the company is currently “considering its options” by seeking advice from authorities in data protection and their Advisory Council.  Google’s quandary is this:  “How should one person’s right to be forgotten be balanced with the public’s right to information?”

What’s private is private

Different from the right to privacy—which deals with private personal information—the Right to be Forgotten concerns published information that a concerned party wishes to no longer be public.  The idea is to remove links irrelevant to an individual’s current image and life, such as those that are out-of-date or untrue.  According to Google’s most recent transparency report, the company has removed 58.2% of the requested URLs.  Google spokesperson Matt Kallman asserts that “each request is reviewed individually by a human, not an algorithm,” which ensures a more personal review of each individual’s situation.  While the removal of a lukewarm review may not be granted, Google has agreed to requests made from victims of crimes.  For example, a rape victim asked to have links to her trial removed from result pages when her name is searched.  Generally, most URLs removed by the company were Facebook pages, The Profile Engine pages, and YouTube videos.

Should you be forgotten, if you had the choice?

The protection of people’s identities is important, especially since Google has the legal power  to decide what appears in their search engine’s results.  On the other hand, the Guardian and other publications have featured many articles opposing the Right to be Forgotten as a threat to free press and free speech.  Free speech campaigner Tessa Mayes even postulates that “to be forgotten” is an attempt “to live outside of society,” and signifies a dangerous, antisocial attitude.  She argues the removal of one’s existence from the Internet—either from the past or present—eliminates the individual’s effect upon it.  While this is a dramatic notion, the Right to be Forgotten does suggest that in a society so dependent on getting their news from the Internet, people may lose accountability for their actions.  For example, a concert pianist from Europe asked the Washington post to remove a “lukewarm review” from their publication.  The publication refused, of course, as the Right to be Forgotten only applies to search engines.  The Post proceeds to write about the fear of this new Right actually being applied to news sources in this article.

Luckily, Google’s regulatory process seems to weed out the appropriate requests from the inappropriate ones.  Furthermore, Michael Fertik of asserts that Google’s rankings are not “magic and immutable,” meaning that web users have to power to impact Google SERPs, whether positively or negatively.  It will be interesting to see the outcome of the French court case and if Google decides whether or not the protection of one man’s reputation could affect search engine results on a global scale.

What’s your opinion on the Right to be Forgotten?  What else would you like to know about it?  Let us know in the comments! 

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