Google’s process for dealing with EU ‘right to be forgotten’ requests looks likely to come under new scrutiny, after a group of 80 leading academics – including Prof Ellen P Goodman from the Rutgers University School of Law and Julia Powles, researcher at University of Cambridge – wrote an open letter to the search giant demanding greater transparency.
This week marks one year since the European Court of Justice ruled that internet search engines must remove information deemed “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” from their search results. Since then, Google claims to have processed 253,617 requests to remove 920,258 links, and approved just over 40 per cent of those requests.
In their open letter, the academics state that the public should be better informed about what kind and quantity of information is being delisted from search results, what sources are being delisted and on what scale, what kinds of requests fail and in what proportion, and what Google’s guidelines are in terms of striking the balance between individual privacy and freedom of expression.
“The vast majority of these decisions face no public scrutiny, though they shape public discourse. What’s more, the values at work in this process will/should inform information policy around the world. A fact-free debate about the right to be forgotten is in no one’s interest,” the letter states.
The academics admit that there is some tension between transparency and the very privacy protection that the right to be forgotten is supposed to advance. However, they claim that the aggregate information they want to see published threatens privacy far less than the “scrubbed anecdotes” that Google has already released, or the notifications that it sends to webmasters to notify them of removed links.
The letter also points to recommendations by Google’s own Advisory Council, as well as the Article 29 Working Party, that “data controllers” such as Google should be as transparent as possible about the way they deal with right to be forgotten requests.
The benefits of such transparency extend to “those who request that links be delisted, those who might make such requests, those who produce content that is or might be delisted, and the wider public who might or do access such material,” according to the academics.
The right to be forgotten came into force on 13 May 2014, after a Spanish citizen took Google to the ECJ, because he wanted a newspaper article about his insolvency to be “forgotten” by Google and no longer listed on the search engine. The ECJ held that Google is a “controller” of personal data, and therefore subject to EU data protection rules.
The ECJ’s decision applies not only to Google but to other search engines operating in Europe, including Yahoo and Bing. However, Google is the only one to notify website administrators when a link to one of their web pages is removed from search results.
Web pages that are removed by Google and other search engines are still available in their original forms online but are no longer available in search results, making them more difficult to find.
Some websites, including The Telegraph, have maintained a list of links that have been removed from Google.