‘Right to be Forgotten’ Marring Google Searches

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Google’s European offices have been inundated with requests to remove links from search results after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled citizens have a right to be forgotten. Individuals can now ask Google not to link to websites with “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” content about them. In the first four days after the ruling in May, Google received 40,000 requests for links to be removed

The ruling applies only to searches via Google’s European web pages. Tech-savvy internet users can easily get around it by using Google’s US web page or a search engine like Duckduckgo.com which has no European footprint. The links are only removed from searches involving the person’s name. They can still be found using alternate search terms.

In the United States, there is no legally recognized right to be forgotten. There is some discussion about whether or not internet users should be allowed to remove content they uploaded themselves in the past. But the majority of experts and commentators currently agree that a right to be forgotten, at least as its defined by the ECJ, would violate freedom of speech.

The ECJ made its landmark ruling in favor of Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish lawyer, who wanted Google to remove links to an article about the seizure and sale of his house to pay debts he owed. The incident took place 16 years ago. He initially asked the newspaper which published the article to delete it. They refused and he asked Google instead. When Google refused as well, he took legal action. He does not dispute the accuracy of the article, but he argued that the matter had been resolved and should no longer come up in Google searches of his name.

The ECJ said the newspaper did not have to remove the article from its website because it was published legally but Google did have to remove the link for all searches connected to Mr. Gonzalez.

In response to the ruling, Gonzalez told The Guardian newspaper, “I was fighting for the elimination of data that adversely affects people’s honor, dignity and exposes their private lives. Everything that undermines human beings, that’s not freedom of expression.”

Viviane Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner, said on her Facebook page, “The ruling confirms the need to bring today’s data protection rules from the ‘digital stone age’ into today’s modern computing world.”

In recent years, Reding had been pushing for a right to be forgotten to be enshrined in EU laws. The ECJ’s ruling granted a much broader right to be forgotten than could have been achieved via legislation. The EU’s laws are the product of extensive negotiations among member states, some of whom expressed strong opposition to the idea.

Google responded to the ruling in a statement, “This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general… We now need to take time to analyze the implications.”

Google has added a notice to the bottom of each page for search results for individuals’ names. It reads, “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.” Users can click a link with more information about the ECJ’s ruling.

Google is also automatically notifying the publisher of any link that has been hidden as a result of a request. This has caused some controversy. Several journalists have written about their experience of hearing their stories had been removed from searches.

Journalist Robert Preston wrote an article for the BBC about the 2007 firing of banker Sam O’ Neill from Merrill Lynch. When he heard from Google that this article had been removed from searches, he cried foul. “Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record – especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory.”

Subsequent investigation revealed that the request to hide the link was related to the name of a person in the comments section of the article. Searches for Sam O’ Neill will still bring up the link.

James Ball of The Guardian newspaper wrote about how an article from as recently as 2011 has been removed. He is particularly upset that he received the notification but has no means of recourse. “The Guardian has no form of appeal against parts of its journalism being made all but impossible for most of Europe’s 368 million to find,” he wrote.

The future of the right to be forgotten is still very unclear. Google announced recently that it had set up an advisory council to study the issue and produce a report with clear guidelines. In the meantime, the avalanche of requests for link removals continues unabated.

Follow Emma Elliott Freire on Twitter. Google image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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