By Quinlyn Manfull
This past week, Google revealed that it had received requests to remove 2.4 million web addresses from its search engines following the 2017 European Court of Justice’s ruling that people have “the right to be forgotten.” In May of 2014, Google Spain v. AEPD & Mario Costeja González established the legal precedent of the Right to be Forgotten, holding that internet search providers “can be made to remove irrelevant or excessive personal information from search engine results” as per the request of individuals.
In a time where we put almost every aspect of our lives online, issues of data protection have become increasingly pertinent. Undoubtedly many of us would like to remove any embarrassing or sensitive information from online. But that raises the question: how much can we edit our public past? What standards should be put in place to determine what our collective online memory should look like?
In a company transparency report, Google said that most requests were small in number, wanting only five or less URLs to be removed from its search results. Of those requests to be forgotten, Google has only delisted 43 percent due to containing information that could be in the public interest.
This policy is being tested currently in England’s first Right to Be Forgotten trial. Two anonymous people, who describe themselves as businessmen, want Google to take down links to sources about their old convictions for accounting fraud.
This battle in England’s courts is coming in a long string of trials across Europe. France recently fought against Google in July of 2017. Additionally, an Italian businessman lost an EU court bid to hide details of an insolvency in March of 2017 and a Belgian court ruled in 2016 that the right to be forgotten applied to newspaper’s electronic archives when a man wanted to remove information regarding a traffic offense.
Under the Right to be Forgotten, data is not physically removed from the internet. The Court ruling merely necessitates that search engine providers remove the link to data, acting as a restriction of public access to personal information through private firms. This only holds for search results within Europe; geolocational signals restrict access to a URL from the country of the requester.
Controversy surrounding this “right” involves a debate between the right to privacy of individuals and public access to information. Without a Right to be Forgotten, private corporations such as Google and Microsoft are empowered to have complete control of and jurisdiction over private, personal and sensitive information — this can be viewed to be fundamentally harmful in an individual’s ability to craft their own identity of self. However, individuals are often seeking to remove information about themselves that could be deemed important for public utility. Access to information about an individual could be uniquely important especially in the case of the individual being a public figure. Public access to information can help hold public figures accountable and ensure more accurate information.
Google says that celebrities requested more than 41,000 delistings, while politicians and government officials requested almost 34,000. 89 percent of the requests came from private individuals who are requesting the removal of mostly social media sites, directories, news articles, and government pages.
Notions of wiping your digitized slate clean can be appealing, and as our lives shift more and more to reliance on our digitized self, questions of autonomy and identity will shift with it — who should control information available about us? Courts across the world are grappling with these questions as new digital realities form around us.