As explained last night by Danny Sullivan, the Right to Be Forgotten has gone into effect in Europe, and Google has put up its “please remove me” request form. Officially called a “search removal request” form, it asks petitioners to submit the links they want removed, explain why and verify their identities.
Specifically, Google asks users to “explain how this URL in search results is irrelevant, outdated or otherwise inappropriate.” This is essentially the same vague, verbatim language used by the Luxembourg-based European Union Court of Justice in its earlier ruling establishing the Right to Be Forgotten.
Beyond this language no further guidelines or criteria have been established by European courts, data protection authorities or governments to determine the legitimacy of removal requests. One factor will have to be status as a public or private figure. Furthermore, there’s currently no process for appeal if Google, in its sole discretion, declines.
Google has announced an advisory committee to help the company assess and evolve its removal process. That group is composed of the following mix of individuals:
- Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chair
- David Drummond, Google’s chief legal counsel
- Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
- Peggy Valcke, Director, University of Leuven law school
- Jose Luis Piñar, the former head of Spain’s data protection authority
- Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia
- Luciano Floridi, an information ethics philosopher at Oxford Internet Institute
The group hasn’t yet been convened. Yet, as the form above indicates, the removal process is now underway. On one level, it’s going to be quite straightforward: people will submit their links and justifications; Google will review them and remove them — or not.
There have already been “thousands” of removal requests, apparently. According to information provided to the New York Times, French officials receive roughly 2,000 complaints a year seeking removal of information from Google. Multiplied across the many individual EU states, there will likely be tens of thousands of removal requests annually.
If a request is granted, the links in question will be removed from EU-specific sites but not from Google.com. That might mean someone in Europe using Google.com but not Google.fr, for example, would still see the disputed information. Who will and won’t see the removed links remains to be fully worked out.
Google has indicated that it will show a notice that content has been removed in cases where it grants a request. This is similar to what it does today with content removed under the US DMCA. Indeed, Google currently deals with scores of copyright takedown requests and government content removal requests globally. Right to Be Forgotten requests are just another category of information in this already well established tug of war. They shouldn’t be overly burdensome to Google.
What’s more troubling is the lack of standards or guidelines, which presumably will have to be worked out over time. Will Google have a single group of experts (not the advisory committee) reviewing all removal requests in Europe? Alternatively, will there be country level reviewers? And if so, will rules be applied evenly so there aren’t different standards in France or Germany vs. Greece?
We can already sense how this will play out. As Danny’s article indicated, historically, the types of links or content people seek to expunge from the index (in the UK and Ireland) generally relate to past criminal behavior:
- 31%: Fraud/scam incident removals
- 20%: Violent/serious crime arrest removals
- 12%: Child pornography arrest removals
In addition, public officials or political candidates seeking to “clean up” the record in advance of elections will be motivated to seek removal of controversial material from Google. It’s not clear if the Right to Be Forgotten will ultimately extend to companies and other legal entities that are not individuals (e.g., corporations seeking removal of controversial information). Right now, that doesn’t appear to be the case. (In the U.S., however, corporations are “people,” too.)
At the moment — at least until an appeals process can be established — Google appears to have total discretion over what’s removed and what remains in its index. The company has indicated it will seek to strike a balance between the right to know and Right to Be Forgotten.
It may well be that a fair process emerges that grants “legitimate” requests and blocks those that aren’t. However, that very much remains to be seen. Without a set of criteria or standards, which the Google advisory committee may help develop, there will be a lot of subjective decision-making over what counts as “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate.”
- How Google’s New “Right To Be Forgotten” Form Works: An Explainer
- Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin: I Wish I Could Forget The “Right To Be Forgotten”
- Actress Sues Google For Indexing Porn Search Results Tied To Her Name
- 10 People Who Want To Be Forgotten By Google, From An Attempted Murderer To A Cyberstalker
- Google Readies For Flood Of Removal Requests After EU “Right To Be Forgotten” Ruling
- The “Right To Be Forgotten”: EU Court Gives People Ability To Delete Their Google Search Results