Consumer Watchdog Tasks Google with Extending 'Right To Be Forgotten' to the US

By Joe Rizzo October 14, 2014

There are a lot of things that we wish we could forget and probably even more things that we want everyone else to forget. The Internet and social media has made that pretty much all but impossible. If you don’t believe me, just ask any politician. So much information is being gathered about you every time you visit a site. This is mostly for advertising reasons, but unfortunately, it can be used for almost anything.

A few months ago in July, the European Court of Justice became the first legal body to make this concept more than just an interesting idea. Earlier in May, it ruled that search engine companies such as Google must remove links to posts about citizens of the European Union who request it if they are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” This applies to all postings even the ones that are found to be lawful and true.

The Consumer Watchdog, which was formerly known as the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is a non-profit organization which advocates for taxpayer and consumer interests, with a focus on insurance, healthcare, political reform, privacy and energy. This week the Consumer Watchdog stated that now that Google is forced to honor the Right To Be Forgotten in Europe it should voluntarily offer the same privacy protection to users in the U.S. In fact, Google’s own analysis shows the right is being successfully implemented and therefore easily applied in the U.S.

John M. Simpson, who is the Consumer Watchdog privacy project director, wrote a letter to Google CEO, Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt. In the letter Simpson said:

“I was heartened to see – based on Google’s own numbers – that you appear able to strike this balance between an individual’s privacy and the public’s right to know in making a decision to remove a link in a search engine result in Europe and it does not appear to be an undue burden on your resources. Google is clearly making the Right To Be Forgotten work for its users in Europe, but that is because you must under the law. We call on you to voluntarily offer the same right to Google users in the United States. As your examples clearly show, removal won't always happen, but the balance you appear to have found between privacy and the public's right to know demonstrates you can make the Right to Be Forgotten work. Americans deserve the same Right to Be Forgotten.  Indeed, with your repeated claims to care about privacy, you should be ashamed that Google is not treating people on both sides of the Atlantic the same way."

The information that Simpson is referring to comes from a Transparency Report that Google released on October 10, 2014, in which it was stated that Google had received a total of 146,357 removal requests involving 498,737 URLs.  Google said it had completed processing 409,897 of those URLs, removing 171,183 or 41.8 percent and retaining 238,714 or 58.2 percent.  The largest number of removal requests, which was 29,140, was received from France.  Germany was a close second with 25,206 and 18,846 originated in Great Britain.

Some of the examples that Google sited in its Transparency Report include:

  • A woman in Italy requested that Google remove a decades-old article about her husband's murder, which included her name. The page was removed from search results for her name. 
  • A Swiss financial professional asked Google to remove more than 10 links to pages reporting on his arrest and conviction for financial crimes. Google did not remove the pages from search results.
  • A rape victim in Germany asked Google to remove a link to a newspaper article about the crime. The page was removed from search results for the individual's name.
  • Google received multiple requests from an Italian asking Google to remove 20 links to recent articles about his arrest for financial crimes committed in a professional capacity. Google did not remove the pages from search results.
  • A doctor in the UK asked Google to remove more than 50 links to newspaper articles about a botched procedure. Three pages that contained personal information about the doctor, but did not mention the procedure were removed from search results for his name. The rest of the links to reports on the incident remain in search results.
  • A German asked that Google remove close to 50 links to articles about an embarrassing private exchange that became public. The pages have been removed from search results for his name.
  • A British public official asked Google to remove a link to a student organization's petition demanding his removal. Google did not remove the page from search results.
  • Google received a request from a former clergyman to remove two links to articles covering an investigation of sexual abuse accusations while in his professional capacity. Google did not remove the pages from search results.

The Right To Be Forgotten is not an easy question to answer. Obviously a link to someone who was raped, suffered abuse, or anything of that nature should not exist. These people should be left in peace. On the other hand, if a doctor lost his license or was accused of bad medical practice, I would like to know about that. The first part effects people who had something happen to them, the second effects people that had something done  to them – and could potentially affect me. It seems that about 61 percent of Americans agree that some version of the Right To Be Forgotten is necessary, according to a survey by Software Advice.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

TechZone360 Contributing Writer

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