Why Google is pushing back against Europe’s 'right to be forgotten'

The European 'right to be forgotten' practice allows people to ask search engines to remove links to defamatory, inaccurate, or outdated information about them.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
Google is in talks with EU regulators over its handling of "right to be forgotten" requests to take down links to online materials. Here, a man rides his bike on Google's campus in Mountain View, California on June 5, 2014.

One year ago, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled to enforce Europe’s “right to be forgotten” practice, which says that search engines must remove links to outdated or inaccurate information about a person if that person asks them to.

The practice is meant to prevent defamatory statements posted online about someone from following those people around forever, or arrest records for minor crimes committed long ago from showing up every time a person’s name is searched.

Now, Google is in talks with European regulators about 48 “right to be forgotten” cases in which, officials at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) say, the search engine company didn’t properly address a person’s request to have links to information about them removed. Google says that it shouldn’t be put in a position where it has to decide which take down requests are legitimate and which are not.

Since the court’s ruling last year, the ICO has heard nearly 200 complaints from people who requested that Google take down links to information about them, but were unhappy with the search engine’s response. In about 150 of those cases, the ICO ruled that Google was right not to remove the links. But it’s asking Google to revise its decision in the remaining 48 cases.

The “right to be forgotten” practice is controversial. Those who support it say people shouldn’t be unfairly dogged by inaccurate, irrelevant, or outdated information that turns up when their name is put into a search engine. But free-speech advocates say the practice could amount to rewriting history by allowing people to censor material that is negative but accurate. The “right to be forgotten” only applies to European search engines, including Google’s subdomains in Europe.

Most “right to be forgotten” take-down requests occur because someone’s privacy has been invaded on social media sites, reports TechCrunch, citing statistics from online reputation management company Reputation VIP. More than half of URLs removed from Google’s database were taken down because someone’s home address, religious affiliation, or other sensitive information was revealed online. Damage to reputation, such as from libelous material posted online, is the second biggest driver of take-down requests. Links related to legal proceedings, which include material about past crimes, account for only 3 percent of take-down requests.

Google’s transparency report indicates that the company refuses about 60 percent of “right to be forgotten” take-down requests. That’s usually because the material in question relates to a person’s professional activity, rather than their personal life, or because the person making the request is the originator of the information.

If Google can’t reach an agreement with European regulators on how to handle the 48 cases in question, the ICO could issue a legally binding enforcement notice to the search engine company. But that’s unlikely to happen – regulators would only take legal action if they felt that Google’s processes for handling take-down requests were inadequate, the BBC reports.

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