A group of 80 Internet scholars from the U.S. and Europe sent an open letter to Google demanding more transparency from the company on its handling of requests filed under the European Union’s Right to Be Forgotten (RTBF) mandate.
The mandate went into effect in May 2014 and gives European Union residents the right to ask Google and other search engine companies to remove search results pointing to incomplete, inaccurate, defamatory, intimate or outdated data about them.
Google said it has received more than 254,000 such requests and evaluated some 922,630 URLs for removal in the past year under the RTBF mandate. According to the company, it has delisted about 41 percent of the URLs it has reviewed while keeping the other 59 percent intact.
Google’s Transparency Report on search removals under RTBF provides several examples of the requests the company said it has received from people over the past year.
Instances in which Google has removed links in response to an RTBF request concerned an individual convicted of a serious crime but later exonerated, a teacher convicted of a minor crime more than 10 years ago and a victim of rape. Examples of cases in which the company did not remove links include a request from a couple accused of business fraud, a request from a priest convicted of child abuse and one from a public official who wanted an article discussing a previous criminal conviction to be delisted.
Although such decisions might appear reasonable at first glance, it is impossible to say how representative they are of Google’s overall handling of RTBF requests, the Internet scholars said in their letter.
“Beyond anecdote, we know very little about what kind and quantity of information is being delisted from search results,” the letter noted.
Signatories to the letter include academicians, law professors and researchers from several leading universities in the United States and Europe. “What sources are being delisted and on what scale, what kinds of requests fail and in what proportion, and what are Google’s guidelines in striking the balance between individual privacy and freedom of expression interests.”
The questions in the letter apply to all search engine providers but are directed mainly at Google because of its dominance in the search market, the letter noted.
“The other search engines get only a small fraction of the requests” that Google receives under RTBF, said Ellen Goodman, professor of law at Rutgers University and one of the lead signatories to the letter. “Ideally, Bing, Yahoo and the others would disclose the same things we’re seeking from Google,” Goodman said in comments to eWEEK via email.
According to Goodman and the other signatories, Google should, at a minimum, disclose details like the categories of RTBF requests that are excluded or presumptively excluded from consideration. The company also needs to provide a more detailed breakdown of delistings involving health information, intimate information or photos, victims of crime or tragedy, and similar categories.
In addition, Google should provide its reasons for denying a delisting request or for granting one, the categories of public figures that have been denied delisting and the proportion of delistings by country, the signatories said. In all, the letter lists 13 specific categories of information that Goodman and the others want Google to be more transparent about.
“There is now a critical mass of data that will give us a reasonably good sense of how things are going one year out,” Goodman told eWEEK. “Many of the signatories have been working on their own trying to understand the process and thought we might be more effective as a group.”
A Google spokeswoman Thursday said the company started releasing information on RTBF-related removals within six months of the EU ruling to help the public understand the impact of the ruling.
“Our Transparency Report is always evolving, and it’s helpful to have feedback like this so we know what information the public would find useful,” she said in an emailed statement to eWEEK.
“We will consider these ideas, weighing them against the various constraints within which we have to work—operationally and from a data protection standpoint.”
Google itself has argued that search engine companies should not be put in a position where they have to make subjective decisions pertaining to link removal requests from individuals. The company has agreed to consider link removal requests but has said it will only remove links to search results that are visible to users in the European Union.
Google’s argument that it should not be forced to make judgment calls on search results is a fair one, Goodman said. “It is indeed ironic, given the anxieties that the public and regulators have about intermediary power, that the RTBF ruling requires intermediaries to exercise this kind of control,” she said.
“But so long as Google and the others have been put in this position, we need more transparency,” she said.