Google Finds Implementing EU's Right to Be Forgotten Mandate Difficult

Google says it has received and processed more than 720,000 link removal requests in past three years.

online privacy

Implementing the European Union's right to be forgotten mandate has neither been simple nor without controversy, Google Senior Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer said on the third anniversary of the passage of the statute.

Writing on Google's The Keyword blog, Fleischer on Monday reiterated Google's commitment to complying with the requirements of the law even as he emphasized the need for another look at some of its provisions.

"Google did not welcome the right to be forgotten, but we have worked hard to implement it in Europe over the last three years," Fleischer said. "Access to information in the public interest, and the right of all countries to define the balance between privacy and free expression within their own borders, are important, fundamental issues."

The right to be forgotten mandate gives EU residents the right to ask search engine services such as Google to remove links in search engine results that point to articles containing erroneous, incomplete or derogatory personal information about them. The statute stems from a 2010 lawsuit that a Spanish man filed against Google Spain seeking removal of links that he claimed pointed to articles about him that were outdated and incomplete.

In ruling against Google's stance on the man's request, the Court of Justice of the European Union held that an individual's fundamental privacy rights trumped the commercial interests of companies such as Google and even public interest, in certain circumstances.

Since the right to be forgotten mandate went into effect, Google has received and processed more than 720,000 requests from EU residents to remove links in search engine results to articles containing personal information about them, Fleischer said. The requests have resulted in Google removing about 43 percent of the more than two million links that EU residents have wanted removed over the past three years, he said.

In that time, national laws and the manner in which search engine companies such as Google delist links from search results have evolved as well, Fleisher said without elaborating.

But one example of what he is likely referring to is Google's own policies regarding the delisting of links. Originally, the company interpreted the right to be forgotten law as applying only to search results appearing within Google search domains in the EU. Over the last year or so, and in response to pressure from data protection authorities in France, the UK and elsewhere, Google has begun delisting links in results appearing on Google.com as well.

In his blog, Fleisher said that while Google has been complying with the requirements of the law, there are two fundamental issues pertaining to the statue that need to be reviewed.

The first issue is whether EU citizens should have the absolute right to request removal of all sensitive personal information from search results or whether search engine companies will continue to have the ability to balance the public's right to know when considering removal requests.

A lawsuit is currently pending before the Court of Justice of the European Union that tests that question. The court has to decide whether data such as an individual's political allegiance or past criminal convictions always outweighs public interest, Fleischer said.

"The tricky thing with this kind of information is that it is often important for people to know and it is frequently reported in newspapers and elsewhere," he said. Requiring automatic delisting would enable anyone to request removal of links that should remain available in the public interest, he said.

The second issue pertains to the applicability of the right to be forgotten mandate beyond the EU's borders, Fleischer said. The stance, by data protection authorities in France, that Google and other search engine companies remove links in results that appear outside the EU is dangerous, he said. Enforcing the right to be forgotten mandate outside the EU, would give others, including authoritarian regimes, an excuse to order Google to do the same with respect to their laws, Fleischer said. "There would quickly be a race to the bottom as other countries, perhaps less open and democratic than France, ordered Google to remove search links for every citizen in every other country of the world."

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.