Google in talks with privacy regulators over ‘right to be forgotten’


One year after the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) ruled that individuals have the right to ask search engines to remove certain search results about them, Google has published some statistics about how it has implemented its response.

Since the search giant began offering the “right to be forgotten” on 29 May, 2014, it has received 925,586 URLs from 255,143 requests for removal. Of those, the company has approved 41.3 percent.

Since last year’s ruling, Google has been obliged to remove links to web content that presents information about an individual if it is deemed to be “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”.

In making its decision, the ECJ effectively put the onus on the search engines to administer and police the removal request process, requiring users to contact them directly with details of the URLs they wished to see removed from web indexes.

That left Google and others complaining about the workload it presented and also left the search companies in the difficult position of deciding which removal requests to approve and which to deny.

That situation has now left Google at loggerheads with privacy regulators who say the company has made errors in some of its decisions.

In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is in talks with the company over 48 such cases that it believes it has not got “quite right”.

The regulator says it hopes a further round of talks will lead to a satisfactory resolution but also noted that it could fall back on enforcement measures (fines and legally binding enforcement notices) if no progression materialises.

Speaking to the BBC, an ICO spokesman said:

“Since the details of the right to be forgotten ruling were first announced, we have handled over 183 complaints from those unhappy with Google’s response to their takedown request.

In around three-quarters of these cases, we have ruled that Google was correct to turn down an individual’s request to have their information removed. This suggests that, for the most part, Google are getting the balance right between the protection of the individual’s privacy and the interest of internet users.”

In response, a spokesman for Google admitted the company had sometimes failed to get a proper grip over privacy rights in Europe due to both errors and in the attitude it had adopted, but claimed the company was now working hard to improve. The spokesman added that users have been given “more control over the data we collect” and hinted of changes to come that would see such tools easier to find and use.

Speaking to the Times, the ICO’s deputy information commissioner David Smith appeared more bullish, saying “at some point, we’ll have to reach a decision as to whether we pursue any [cases] where Google doesn’t agree with us, through formal action”.

Smith went on to say that, while the ECJ ruling only pertained to links on European search sites, he believed that Google and others should take a blanket approach, removing the same links from US and other indexes.

While it will be interesting to see how the standoff between the ICO and Google plays out, it is almost certain that not everyone will be entirely satisfied with the outcome.

Individuals undoubtedly see the “right to be forgotten” as a means of removing links to content that they would prefer to see buried and there are many privacy campaigners who agree with such a viewpoint.

On the other hand, free speech advocates oppose the removal of some negative information on the grounds that its original reporting was fair, accurate and/or in the public interest.