What is the right to be forgotten?
At the end of November 2014, it was revealed that rival search engines Bing and Yahoo would also be abiding by the ruling, with Microsoft stating that it was “still refining” the process, while Yahoo said it was working on balancing the right to individual privacy with the public’s right to information.
New guidelines dictating that links be removed from all domains were also agreed to by EU privacy regulators.
Google has said the ruling should not extend beyond Europe, claiming that it is a “European concept” and should be limited.
“We’ve had a basic approach, we’ve followed it, on this questions we’ve made removals Europe-wide but not beyond,” Google’s Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, said at an event in Brussels.
“We’ll take [the report], along with the Article 29 input and other input and arrive at an approach… It’s our strong view that there needs to be some way of limiting the concept, because it is a European concept.”
Below, we run through everything you need to know about Google’s “right to be forgotten” and what the reaction to it has been like so far…
What will be removed?
The information must be deemed “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate,” and be accompanied by a digital copy of the user’s official identification. Failure to remove links that align with the EU court ruling’s definition will result in fines.
The BBC’s Robert Peston recently questioned his own seven-year-old blog post about chief executive Stanley O’Neal leaving investment bank Merrill Lynch being removed from searches in Europe under the ruling. He said of the “off” move.
“Maybe I am a victim of teething problems. It is only a few days since the ruling has been implemented – and Google tells me that since then it has received a staggering 50,000 requests for articles to be removed from European searches.”
Since airing his worries about being “cast into oblivion”, Google’s director of communications for Europe, Peter Barron, responded to Peston’s complaints, calling the company’s approach to the new ruling a “learning process” though admitted the process could be made clearer.
Google previously said via its webform: “In implementing this decision, we will assess each individual request and attempt to balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public’s right to know and distribute information.”
Google recently removed links to several Telegraph articles. One was about a newspaper sales director terrorising a couple before a football game, while two other links, published in 2001 and 2008 respectively, were also removed.
Subsequently, a link to a 2007 Telegraph story regarding a three-year ASBO given to a teenage accused of being responsible for almost 40 per cent of the crime in his town – amounting to more than 120 offences – was also removed.
Wikipedia was also hit with a request for removal of a link from search results, with the founder of the popular online encyclopaedia Jimmy Wales, who is also part of the 10-person advisory task force set up to help Google comply with the ruling, objecting to the move saying: “It’s completely insane and needs to be fixed.
“In the case of truthful, non-defamatory information obtained legally, I think there is no possibility of any defensible ‘right’ to censor what other people are saying. You do not have the right to use the law to prevent Wikipedia editors from writing truthful information, nor do you have a right to use the law to prevent Google from publishing truthful information.”
What’s the reaction to the ruling been like?
Since Google started removing content from its search results, the company has faced opposition from the BBC (as mentioned above) and others.
The UK government has also voiced its disapproval at the directive, and has demanded the EU drop the right to be forgotten law from the EU’s data protection legislation.
Justice Minister Simon Hughes told the House of Lords: “The government is currently negotiating with our 27 partners to get a new law, which is the new directive and we, the UK, would not want what is currently in the draft, which is the right to be forgotten, to remain. We want it to be removed, we think it is the wrong position.”
More recently, the ruling was described by the House of Lords Home Affairs EU Sub-Committee as “vague, ambiguous and unhelpful,” with chair of the committee, Baroness Prashar, saying: “We believe that it is wrong in principle to leave search engines themselves the task of deciding whether to delete information or not, based on vague, ambiguous and unhelpful criteria, and we heard from witnesses how uncomfortable they are with the idea of a commercial company sitting in judgement on issues like that.”
To rectify the problem, Prashar recommended that search engines not be considered data controllers, removing ‘ownership’ of the information in question.
Meanwhile, The Guardian has also complained about the new rules, after emerging as one of the first publications to have links to its articles removed.
The newspaper initially had six links removed, although four were later reinstated.
David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, has since admitted (in a comment piece for the paper) that it was wrong to pull some of the links it did.
“Only two months in, our process is still very much a work in progress. It’s why we incorrectly removed links to an article last week (since been reinstated),” he wrote.
“But the good news is that the ongoing, active, debate that’s happening will inform the development of our principles, policies and practices, in particular about how to balance one person’s right to privacy with another’s right to know.”
Commenting on the recent removal of certain links to Telegraph stories, Paul Gershlick, partner in the intellectual property team at law firm Matthew, Arnold and Baldwin, said: “My own view is that this is putting search engines in a very awkward position.
“The law is definitely not certain anymore, and it could stifle free speech. If you’re Google why would you risk a legal claim? You’d remove the link: that’s the simple option.”
In response to the removal of certain links, the website Hidden from Google has been set up to keep a record of search results that have been taken down. The list currently has 15 verified examples, with the site somewhat ironically replacing the original pages for relevant search terms in many cases.
Afaq Tariq, the US developer behind the site, said of his decision to create the curated list of links removed from EU search results: “There is an information gap there and, where you can verify examples, you can curate a list.”
Who is regulating the EU Right To Be Forgotten?
How Google handles complaints and requests to remove information from its search results will be looked over by a taskforce of European privacy watchdogs, referred to as Article 29.
The group met in Brussels on 3 June and decided a taskforce would be put in place to examine Google’s process under the new ruling.
Following the flood of requests received by Google, Professor Luciano Floridi, the person tasked with determining how Google can comply with the recent EU court ruling, said: “People would be screaming if a powerful company suddenly decided what information could be seen by what people, when and where,” he said.
“That is the consequence of this decision. A private company now has to decide what is in the public interest.”
Google, currently responsible for almost 90 per cent of web searches in Europe, now faces the unenviable task of balancing its duty to comply with its users’ “right to be forgotten” and preserving its reputation as the go-to source for online information and content.
Peter Barron, Google’s director of communications for Europe, said: “The European court of justice ruling was not something that we wanted, but it is now the law in Europe, and we are obliged to comply with that law. We are aiming to deal with it as responsibly as possible… It’s a very big process, it’s a learning process, we are listening to the feedback and we are working our way through that.”
Google has had over 90,000 removal requests about more than 328,000 URLs worldwide, though the search engine has so far refused to disclose information that could identify the complainants.
All applications must verify that the links in question relate specifically to the applicant, unless the applicant has the legal authority to act on the claimant’s behalf, in which case this must be proven.
Is it about privacy or censorship?
The somewhat controversial request form launched by Google after the ruling received 12,000 entries from across Europe within 24 hours – at one point receiving up to 20 requests a minute. This grew to 41,000 requests in the first four days.
Feeding into fears about the potential consequences of this ruling, almost a third of the requests were related to accusations of fraud, while a further 12 per cent were attached to child pornography arrests and 20 per cent for other serious or violent crimes.
Of these first 12,000 entries, around 1,500 were said to be people residing in the UK, with an ex-politician, a paedophile and a GP among them.
By December, the number of requests received by Google has grown to around 175,000 from all 28 EU countries, with 65,000 of the links coming from the UK.
Before the form was made available, most removal requests to Google were coming from Germany and Spain, with the UK, Italy and France making up the rest of the top five.
There are concerns from many that the ability for users to request information be removed from search results could result in the system being abused for nefarious purposes.
However, lawyers have assured those worried that politicians, celebrities and criminals will probably not benefit from the ruling as Google will have the right to reject applications that request removal of information deemed in the public interest.
It should also be noted that, while links to the objectionable information will be removed, the information will not actually be deleted from the web.
Following on from comments regarding the ruling, Baroness Prashar, chair of the Lords Home Affairs EU Sub-Committee, said: “[We] do not believe that individuals should have the right to have links to accurate and lawfully available information about them removed, simply because they do not like what is said.”