A new European Union law that allows citizens to request the removal of negative information about them when it turns up in online searches is in the midst of its first data deletions, which are spurring loud criticisms from content producers who argue that the practice is wrongly changing and cleansing history online.
In a July 3 story in The (London) Telegraph, Robert Peston, a BBC economics editor, fumed about the deletion of several of his blog posts under the new “right to forget” law, which was adopted in the EU in May. “Peston said received a ‘notice of removal’ from Google, informing him that an article that he had published in 2007 about former Merrill Lynch boss Stan O’Neal would no longer be shown in European Google search results,” The Telegraph reported. “The article, ‘Merrill’s Mess’ describes how O’Neal was forced to leave the investment bank after it endured significant losses on the back of careless investments.”
By removing the posts from the searches, Peston told the paper, history has been changed and people can’t learn what truly happened. “To all intents and purposes the article has been removed from the public record, given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people,” Peston told the paper.
The May EU court decision set up rules that require Google and other search companies to remove outdated and harmful information about individuals that can turn up in online searches, under some conditions, according to a recent eWEEK report. To comply with the “right to forget” ruling, Google has made an online form and process available for EU residents who want to request information removals about themselves.
Only residents in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are presently eligible to use the form, according to Google.
Some 50,000 removal requests have been received so far by Google under the new rules, according to published reports.
Peston told The Telegraph that, by removing information that some people feel shows them in a bad light, the accuracy and context of history are dramatically and wrongly changed, in addition to harming the freedom of the press. “Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record—especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory (Merrill went to the brink of collapse the following year, and was rescued by Bank of America).”
That could lead to unwanted side effects, he told the paper. “So there is an argument that in removing the blog, Google is confirming the fears of many in the industry that the ‘right to be forgotten’ will be abused to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest.”
Critics Decry Google’s Deletion of Links to Comply With EU Courts
The (London) Daily Mail reported July 2 that it was notified that links to several of its stories have also been removed in Google search under the new rules. They include articles about Scottish soccer referee Dougie McDonald “who was found to have lied about his reasons for granting a penalty in a Celtic v. Dundee United match; a story about Tesco workers posting stories on social media attacking their workers; a story about a couple caught having sex on a Virgin train; and a story about a Muslim man who accused Cathay Pacific, the airline, of refusing to employ him because of his name,” the paper reported.
The Daily Mail said it has not removed the stories from its site.
Martin Clarke, the publisher of the MailOnline Website, said in the story, “These examples show what a nonsense the right to be forgotten is. It is the equivalent of going into libraries and burning books you don’t like. MailOnline intends to regularly publish lists of articles deleted from Google’s European search results so people can keep track of what has been deleted. There is no suggestion any of these articles are inaccurate.”
Google said earlier that the new EU rules require Google to make difficult judgments about an individual’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to know. The company previously said it is forming an expert advisory committee to look at these issues, while also working together with data protection authorities.
The online data removal request form states that the “Court of Justice of the European Union found that certain users can ask search engines to remove results for queries that include their name where those results are (emphasis added by Google) ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.’” Google said it will assess each individual request and attempt to balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public’s right to know and distribute information. Google said it will look at whether the results include outdated information about individuals, as well as “whether there’s a public interest in the information—for example, information about financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials.”
Users making information-removal requests must provide the URL for each link appearing in a Google search for their name that they request to be removed, as well as an explanation about why the linked page is about them and how it is irrelevant, outdated or otherwise inappropriate. Users must provide additional details and sign and attest to the authenticity of their request.
The EU’s May decision was a stunning reversal of an earlier opinion by an adviser to the Court of Justice of the European Union in June 2013 that said Google should not have to delete information from its search results when old information is pulled up that is damaging to individuals.
In the 2013 case, a man in Spain had argued that Google searches of his name had uncovered a then-15-year-old announcement in a newspaper describing how a property he owned was up for auction because of nonpayment of Social Security, the court stated. The man wanted Google to remove the old information, which was damaging his reputation, according to the earlier case. The Spanish court originally accepted the man’s argument and ordered Google to remove the information from its search results. Google then appealed that decision and received the favorable opinion from the Court of Justice adviser, who ruled that the original Spanish court decision was wrong.