Google Must Offer U.S. Users 'Right to Be Forgotten': Consumer Group

Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint with the FTC that Google's failure to offer a 'right-to-be-forgotten' option to Internet users in the U.S. is unfair.

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right to be forgotten

Consumer Watchdog, a long-time critic of Google's privacy policies, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over what it described as the company's failure to offer a "right-to-be-forgotten" option to Internet users in the United States.

In a letter addressed to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, the rights advocacy group said that Google's stance was unfair and deceptive in the face of its repeated statements about being deeply committed to consumer privacy.

"Google's anti-consumer behavior around privacy issues is deceptive," Consumer Watchdog noted in its complaint. "The Internet giant holds itself out to be committed to users' privacy, but does not honor requests that provide a key privacy protection."

The European Union's right-to-be-forgotten mandate gives residents in the European Union the right to ask Google and other search engine providers to remove links in search engine results that point to incorrect, incomplete or outdated information about them.

Since the mandate went into effect in May 2014, Google said it has received more than 281,000 link removal requests from E.U. residents and has evaluated over 1 million URLs for removal in response to those requests. The company said it has removed links in about 41 percent of the cases while refusing to remove links with the remainder of the requests.

Google has argued that the mandate unfairly puts search engine companies in the position of having to review thousands of link removal requests from individuals on a case-by-case basis. So far, the company has only removed links that show up in its search engine results within the European Union. The company has steadfastly refused to remove links from its main search site or from Google domains in other countries outside the European Union, despite growing protests from data protection authorities in the European Union and elsewhere.

In its complaint to the FTC, Consumer Watchdog argued that Google should be required to give U.S. Internet users the right to ask for incorrect, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive information about them to be removed from search engine results.

The right to be forgotten, or the "right of relevancy," is vital to protecting consumer privacy in the Internet age, the rights advocacy group said. The Internet and digital technology have made it all but impossible for individuals to completely remove information about themselves from public view, even if the information is outdated, incorrect or no longer relevant. "Everything—all our digital footprints—are instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device," Consumer Watchdog said.

The complaint pointed to other examples where people in the United States already have a right of relevancy. The Fair Credit Reporting Act, for instance, requires that certain information pertaining to debt collections, tax liens and civil lawsuits be removed from consumer reports after a specified period of time. Consumers should have that same protection with data available on the Internet, as well, Consumer Watchdog said.

"Without a doubt, requesting the removal of a search engine link from one's name to irrelevant data under the Right To Be Forgotten (or Right to Relevancy) is an important privacy option," it said.

Google already removes links to certain information upon request in the United States. For instance, it recently announced that it would remove links to so-called revenge porn, or to national identification numbers like Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and account signatures. "Google's approach to removals in the United States underscores the unfairness of offering the Right To Be Forgotten to Europeans, but not to Americans," Consumer Watchdog said.

Google did not respond to a request for comment on the complaint.

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.