Right to be forgotten: Google may hate it, but we're dangerously close to making it work

Right to be forgotten: Google may hate it, but we're dangerously close to making it work

Summary: While the battle lines are being drawn up over the right to be forgotten, it seems we may be making the best of an imperfect system.

Thousands of people have already asked Google to remove them from search results. Image: Google

Last month, the right to be forgotten was enshrined in European law, thanks to a ruling by the European Court of Justice. Except it wasn't a right, you weren't forgotten, and it hasn't really been enshrined anywhere. Confused? You're not the only one.

In May, the ECJ ruled on the case of a Spanish national who had, over a decade ago, been involved in an auction of property to settle social security debts. When people Googled his name, newspaper stories about the auction appeared prominently in search results. The man thought that the information about him was outdated, and the court found in his favour, ruling that Google must no longer return links to those newspaper stories when his name is searched for. The newspaper articles remain online, and can be found through Google when other search terms are used.

The mechanism is not an outrageous one, and it has precedents in the offline world. When applying for a job, for example, individuals are often asked about any criminal convictions. They are legally bound to tell their potential employer about them for a certain amount of time, but for many types of conviction that duty will eventually expire and the individual no longer has to disclose it.

Nonetheless, the result of the ruling involving what one Spanish man did in the 1990s has potentially far-reaching consequences for internet use in Europe.

In some quarters, the ruling has been described as giving every European the right to be forgotten; in others, as bringing in a new wave of press censorship. In reality, it does neither.

The ruling allows Europeans to request that data controllers, like Google, remove links to outdated or irrelevant information when searches are performed for their names. In the event the request is found to be justified, links will be removed from results returned for searches on that person's name, but the original source material will remain online and can be found through other queries. Data controllers still have the right to refuse requests when they feel the links in question are still pertinent for searches on an individual's name.

However, since Google opened a web form for people to request search result removal, tens of thousands of people have asked the search company to do just that.

The first removals

This week, the first such removals began to come to light. Large news organisations such as the BBC and The Guardian, along with more smaller B2B outlets, all reported Google had contacted them to let them know they were subject to removals, while Google users began to see messages that certain search results "may have been removed under European data protection legislation".

A handful of recent 'right to be forgotten' removals were highlighted by The Guardian on Thursday. According to the paper, Google had alerted it that six articles would no longer be returned in search results for individuals' names. The names were not disclosed, although three articles referred to a Scottish referee, while another was a sweet story about French office workers making art from Post-It notes on their workplace windows.

Yet both cases illustrate the flaws in the system. Is the information in the story about the referee no longer relevant after three years? Is a system ostensibly meant to protect people's privacy being wasted on individuals who once happily told journalists about their creative ways of wasting office stationery?

It's a similar story over at the BBC. The BBC reports one of its articles involving the former head of Merrill Lynch Stan O'Neal no longer appeared in search results for a certain name. That name isn't, as you might have expected, Stan O'Neal. Instead, it's thought that the request is linked to a name in the comments section.

Was it right to do so?

The wider question is, perhaps, when does that information become outdated in relation to its subject? These are difficult questions for anyone, even those with an interest in how to balance the right of citizens to a private life with the freedom of the press and individuals' right to information.

The fact that Google decided to restore the links to the Scottish referee and other stories on the same day it removed them suggests that it has not yet got a handle on best practice for when these links should be disappeared.

Google said: "We have recently started taking action on the removals requests we’ve received after the European Court of Justice decision. This is a new and evolving process for us. We’ll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling."

Robert Peston, the author of the BBC story on Stan O'Neal that was removed, speculates that rather than have Google make the call, such decisions would be better left to journalists and their publishers.

It already seems that's the case. Tthe furore around the removal requests has pushed the removed links, and their subjects, back into the spotlight — exactly the opposite of what the subjects were trying to achieve, and a perfect example of how the Streisand effect works online.

Journalists appear to be showing some common sense with regards to their subjects — while the referee and Merrill Lynch boss have been repeatedly highlighted, an article involving a man found not guilty of fraud has been largely ignored. Perhaps Peston was right after all — journalists may yet make better arbiters on right to be forgotten cases than Google.

How to handle requests

In defence of both the ruling and Google, however, there is no official advice yet on how to handle removals requests, as local European data watchdogs are yet to publish guidance on the matter.

Neil Cameron, a management consultant specialising in IT and director of the Neil Cameron Consulting Group, didn't pull his punches about Google's ability to deliver good decisions on right to be forgotten requests at a House of Lords select committe hearing on the matter.

"I trust Google to exercise that judgement even less than I trust the European Court of Justice… I don't trust their judgement, I don't think they're geared up for it, and I think they're primarily an American corporation that doesn't understand what personal data protection means anyway... I don't have a lot of time for Google and I don't think it's an appropriate place to put that onus."

Google has hired what's been described as an "army of paralegals" to help process the requests, though yesterday's U-turn suggests even with those legal minds onboard, the company is still failing to get to grips with the process. That's perhaps no surprise, given both the speed with which it's acted — it's only six weeks since the court handed down its decision — and the volume of requests it's received since then, now thought to number more than 70,000.

As Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, noted, the original ECJ ruling should apply only to a small set of people and is very much in line with Google's own interests.

"Google strives to provide relevant results. Its whole purpose is to give you information which is meaningful, useful, and up to date so the [ECJ] is identifying a circumstance that, according to Google's business model, ought to be very rare," he told the Lords hearing this week.

In the case of the Spanish man, an event from 12 years ago was appearing at the top of his search results, making it became very easy for Google users to find something that was "old and not relevant to his current circumstances. For most people, that's not going to be the case... It ought to be a very narrow set of circumstances when this right get exercised."

As much as Google has objected to the ECJ ruling, it would appear to be entirely in keeping with its own modus operandi.

You'd be forgiven for feeling queasy at the thought of results for 70,000 searches potentially being altered might, but remember that Google's algorithms are constantly reviewed and altered — what we see today for a particular search is not necessarily what we will see tomorrow.

As the whole discussion over right to be forgotten removals have shown, we think of Google as a utility. It's our gatekeeper to the web — when it buries links, that content might as well disappear altogether. If the ECJ ruling is tantamount to censorship, so are Google's own practices.

The only difference between Google's everyday algorithm reshuffling and ECJ removals is that in the latter case decision-taking will mostly be done by humans and the public will likely be made aware of the consequences by journalists revealing when the rich and famous are trying to bury their pasts. That, to me, would seem a step forward.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to reflect an incorrect attribution of a quote. The quote attributed to Neil Cameron was initially incorrectly attributed to Luciano Floridi, a professor at Oxford University.

Read more on the right to be forgotten

Topics: Privacy, Google, Government, Legal, EU

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  • Stupid, stupid system ..

    If JoBest seriously believes that asking Google, Bing, et al, to censor their results is a 'good thing', then she has no business writing about tech matters. Or much else.

    Just one story today has highlighted hw farcical this is. A bank has asked Google to censor its findings; Google has complied, and the ensuing fuss has meant more people have read the offending story - untouched by EU law - than ever would have otherwise. It's pathetic.

    The EU is making search engines (specifically Google, but all others by association) into the Internet Police; a decision wrong in principle, and in practice.

    Of course Google hates it; it is costing them big money, as well the principle of doing the EU's dirty work.

    Anyone with a brain would hate it.

    If - in the interests of privacy - censorship is required (and that's debatebale, at best), then censor the actual item, not the search engine result that features it.

    Jo Best - if she's capable of it - should think again, not simply bask in the joy of seeing Google under attack.
    • This

      x 1000.
    • Stupid, Stupid System...

      Spot on, Heenan73.

      I don't think a 'right to be forgotten' can be defined in such a way that makes any principled sense whatsoever.

      And even if it could, I really do not understand why the host where the information is stored is not the target, rather than a third party search/link ranking service.

      Disclosure: I have no personal stake in Google or any other search engine.
      • You are forgetting that things on the internet can be falsified

        Manipulated, etc.
        I personally have things on the internet that are, at the very least, unflattering towards me that are statements taken out of context or even chopped up so badly that they are worthless for finding out what I actually stand for.
        • Not forgotten...

          Deleting such references does nothing.

          Remove them from the orginal site if you can.

          They are still historical records, and just as fallible as any other records.
    • 100% agree with Heenan73.

      There is nothing good that will come out of this EU ruling.
      • It's the standard response of the zd net comment section

        'Eu ruling - boo!'
        'Google - yay!'

        It's just childish. Let us not forget what google is. It's a search engine. Nothing more, nothing less. Being able to opt out of it is logically anybodies right. It's no different than not wanting your name in the phone book.

        It's just having your name not searchable, nothing else.

        All this censorship nonesense is just fear mongering. Again this is giving a user of the internet - so basically anyone - the ability to say 'actually I'd like to opt out of this' nobody is being censored - it is they who are opting out.

        Censorship works like this:
        You want to say something, but the state, or and organisation or a company or any other group with power prevents yu from communicating it.

        An individual saying that THEY would like for THEIR name to not be searchable is not censorship. It's privacy.

        If you want the story, or web page, or whatever that originally came up by search, it hasn't been censored - you'll just have to search by a relevant term, not a name.

        If you search a news story, you'll get all possible sites that gave that story - every angle.

        If you search a name only you don't get everything that person has been linked to ever online.

        It's just privacy. People are too quick to give it up. The modern blind faith in me go organisations like google microsoft and apple would be funny if it wasn't also a little scarey.
        • Privacy?

          No Mark, it isn't privacy; it's editing. If you say or do something in public, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy. If you do something that makes the papers you can be sure you did it in public unless your privacy was invaded to obtain the information. It's pretty cut and dried, but we also have libel and slander laws to protect private citizens from public ridicule.

          Mostly this is just a technically dumb idea. Asking the search engine to ignore results for "John Smith" is flat out stupid. I hope you understand that part? If a person wants to have a web page taken down there probably should be a mechanism for doing that. Perhaps you aren't familiar with web sites that specialize in posting bad reviews of individuals? The "boyfriends from hell" type sites so popular with estranged women would be a good example. Yes, people should have reasonable recourse in situations like that, but why is Google responsible?
          Pfc. Parts
          • Google is the NUCLEUS

            Google is Reckless and WE need the Right to Forget Laws

            No Heenan73 you are stupid stupid stupid. Google SHOULD BE RESPONSIBLE for what they leave online. I was falsely accused of something I did NOT DO and some political machine paid into advertisement on a desperate social media site. The negative story was one sided and put me in a horrible light on the internet. Once the case was throw out, I could not move forward because of this reckless, irresponsible story that the third Party Site REFUSED to remove. To make matters worse, the person behind these false accusations decided to page rank the story to the top of google by BACK LINKING to hundreds of articles. Now the negative story remains at the top of google and they refuse to remove the story. It's not their problem even though it violates their so called guidelines because of the paid links and black hat, but they could care less. I am unable to get a job and move forward because google refuses to remove this
            compromised story that was manufactured and written with malicious intent to destroy and put me in a false, misleading, inaccurate and negative light.

            We should very much support the right to forget. Google is a nightmare and in the USA they are the only ones with the freedom of speech. We have no freedom of speech in America anymore because America is too busy trying to make money and destroy people for political retribution. It's an ugly corrupt country. The laws in America are outdated and technology and the internet are way ahead. This is why people are being cyber stalked and cyber harassed and nothing is being done about it in America.
          • So you want the perpetrator of your outrage

            to go free?

            No - it shouldn't be forgotten. It should be exposed as false, and perpetrator shown.

            And you get to sue for libel.
          • LOL. Such ignorance IMO.

            While Google may now be required by the EU to delete the online information, doesn't the news article archives still exist? Yes.

            All someone would need to do is review local news archives and the original article would be available.

            People need to accept that their past DOES follow them. If it's fact, than they need to simply own it and accept self-responsibility for their past choices/actions.

            Only naive fools think you can erase history. You can't, but you will learn from it if your smart.
        • Not exactly

          Not true. There is a right to know if it has ever been in the public domain. Your not speaking of privacy. Corporations are individuals not a group legally speaking. Individual vs corporation is not a valid point. This is censorship. There is no other interpretation.
        • You don't understand the ruling.

          It is about editing your public profile making a highly biased result. It significantly decreases the public trust of search engines.

          This is not EU bad Google good. I dislike Google for many reasons but this is a bad bad bad ruling and there is 0.000% good in it.
          • No, I did understand it.

            Sorry if my personal view lead you to believe otherwise.

            The public trust of search engines? But they aren't unbiased to start with? But that's a whole different debate! Thanks for your opinion :-)
          • LOL. Search engines biased?

            Search engines run established logic based on relevancy.

            I'm sure you'd blame the police officer for pulling you over when you were been speeding as well.

            People need to own their choices/actions in their life, but it's obvious some have not matured to full adults yet.

            Computers are NOT human and your lying to yourself. You need to learn about coding logic.
          • RE: Search engins biased

            Did you forget when Google was placing money-making ads at the top of search results without making it clear that they were paid ads? Right, there is no human bias involved in programming algorithms...those computers just decide by themselves what to search for, how to search, and what rank to give the results.
            Iman Oldgeek
        • Don't need your broad brush/claim of bad faith intent by those opposing

          Please avoid the broad brush. Neither for me nor, quite obviously, many people here, is it "EU boo, Google yay." In fact, this has, for me and many others, nothing to do with Google. It's about the ruling itself and the degree to which it neither accomplishes privacy nor balances the rights of people and entities.

          Something appears in a newspaper or another PUBLIC content source. I wish to show those results. How is it government's role to tell me that I can or cannot do this?

          And this does not help privacy. I actually am quite fine with people having right over their content. The content remains there, and remains available. That should be the first focus, if we actually care about privacy. Obviously there's complex questions here regarding the freedom of the press versus a person's control over their own content.

          In any case, to make your argument, you do not need to make claims of bad faith of those speaking in opposition.
        • Privacy for All?

          What about a politician who doesn't like an investigative report about some nice bribes they received? A business executive who has been caught giving those bribes or making some other illegal or ethically questionable action? There are lots of reasons that being forgotten on the internet in an age when most news is moving there isn't a very good idea.
          Jim Satterfield
          • I liked this one.

            Those are cases where the law applies.

            For example you embezzle 2m from your company - you go to prison.

            When you get out, the whole point of the legal system is that you have served your time.

            There may be legal restriction on what you can do, but you've actually been absolved.

            In the age of your hack journalism and shock reporting, ppl might not like it, but actually if it isn't relevant - such as just googling the name of your new neighbour, no, you don't have a right to know, sorry, hire a PI.
          • Serving your time doesn't remove the public records

            And doesn't remove the possibility that you will repeat.