Google has received 282,407 requests for personal information to be removed from the internet since the European Union Court passed the controversial right to be forgotten laws in May 2014.
The right to be forgotten is a piece of legislation designed to let people have web pages containing false, misleading, or outdated information about them removed from web searches.
For example, if an article was written about someone accusing them of a crime it later turned out they had not committed, the person in question could make it so the article does not appear when their name is searched in Google.
As explained in the European Commission’s (EC’s) right to be forgotten fact sheet:
“Individuals have the right – under certain conditions – to ask search engines to remove links with personal information about them. This applies where the information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive for the purposes of the data processing.”
The law went into effect in May last year and Google’s current right to be forgotten statistics show:
- 282,407 people and organisations have filled in right to be forgotten request since May 2014.
- The requests wanted a staggering 1,027,207 web pages removed from Google search.
- Roughly 58.7% of the requests were successful.
- This means the requests led to the deletion of 602,000 web pages from Google Search.
Since the figure was revealed many groups have expressed concern at the high success rate of right to be forgotten requests.
The UK’s Daily Mail newspaper was the most vocal critic claiming some are from “killers, rapists and terrorist who want to hide criminal pasts,” in its story on the right to be forgotten figures.
If the Mail’s criticism is true, the Google right to be forgotten statistics would indeed be bad news. However, the criticism ignores a number of key facts.
For starters, the right to be forgotten is designed so that criminals cannot use it the way the Mail describes. The EC legislation on the right to be forgotten makes clear in its right to be forgotten fact sheet:
“The right to be forgotten is not absolute but will always need to be balanced against other fundamental rights, such as the freedom of expression and of the media.
“A case-by-case assessment is needed considering the type of information in question, its sensitivity for the individual’s private life and the interest of the public in having access to that information. The role the person requesting the deletion plays in public life might also be relevant.”
Google is also pretty explicit about what requests it will and will not approve and says in its own right to be forgotten fact sheet:
“[Google will] weigh whether or not there’s a public interest in the information remaining in our search results — for example, if it relates to financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions or your public conduct as a government official (elected or unelected).”
In short, requests like those detailed in the Mail should not, and probably have not, been approved by Google.
Sadly, completely dismissing this claim is difficult as Google does not reveal the identities of people who have mounted successful right to be forgotten requests.
A spokesperson from Google told Business Insider this is because it would “defeat the purpose” of removing the links in the first place.
A rare win for digital privacy
The right to be forgotten figures follow widespread concerns about web users ability to protect their digital privacy.
Rather than the right to be forgotten, the concerns focus on the US and UK governments’ plans to control businesses use of encryption.
Encryption is a security technology designed to help people protect their digital privacy that is used by many online services, including Google’s Gmail and Facebook.
It works by scrambling their digital information using specialist mathematics. The scrambling process makes it so only people in possession of a specific unlock key or password can read the encrypted information.
This in turn makes it harder, if not impossible, for intelligence agencies and criminal groups to steal or read the information.
The US government is also considering proposals that would let agencies like the NSA and FBI legally collect and decrypt data from smartphones and “other communications devices.”
A group of 140 companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook sent an open letter to President Obama in May urging him to reject the encryption proposals, fearing they would damage the US economy.
UK prime minister David Cameron has also hinted at similar plans to hamper the use of encryption. Cameron told Parliament he wants to “ensure that terrorists do not have a safe space in which to communicate,” on June 6.
The details of Cameron’s plans remain unknown, though many security professionals, including cryptography expert Bruce Schneier, have argued blocking, or controlling the use of encryption, is impossible.
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