What is Google’s ‘Right to be Forgotten’ and Why is it Controversial?

In 2010, a complaint was filed by a citizen of Spain who claimed that a Spanish newspaper infringed on his right to privacy when they posted information about an auction of his home that had recently been repossessed. The man, whose complaint was filed with the Data Protection Agency, named the newspaper, Google Inc., and Google Spain in his complaint. In short, the man demanded that personal information about him be removed from both the newspaper and search engine results. His request, also known as “the right to be forgotten” made it all the way to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The Verdict

Fast forward four years and the case has since been resolved by the EU Court. On May 13, 2014, the Court ruled the following:

  • If a company’s physical server is located outside of Europe, the EU rules still apply if said company has an advert-selling branch or subsidiary in a Member State of the EU.
  • Since search engines control personal data, Google cannot eschew its responsibilities to abide by European law by simply saying that it is a search engine. The laws, which include the right to be forgotten, still apply.
  • The right to be forgotten is legal, under certain circumstances.

The Controversy

The EU Court’s ruling was not cut and dry, which, freedom of expression aside, is an enormous hurdle for Google (and other search engines). The Court ruled that, where information is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive,” people can ask that links be removed from search results.

The Court also made it clear that a balance must be found, and the right to be forgotten is not finite because of concerns over freedom of the media and expression. In other words, each case must be considered individually, and factors including the requestor’s public role, the type of information being questioned, and the public’s interest in said information must be considered. But, who has the final say in determining the right balance? As it turns out, Google does.

For many, that’s the problem. The burden is now placed in the hands of the search engines to review the requests and determine which are and aren’t valid.

The Backlash

As is the nature of the beast, some of Google’s decisions related to which links to remove have already been met with criticism. As a result, the company recently back-pedaled and reinstated a number of previously removed links. Certainly, errors will be made along the way as, even Google admits that the task “is a new and difficult challenge for us.”

Google is at least trying to comply with the decision, though it doesn’t agree with it. Considering the search engine giant has fielded well over 70,000 right to be forgotten requests since the decision came down in May, Google’s position is certainly not an enviable one. Everyone from politicians to violent criminals and everyday citizens have sent in applications, and Google must review them one by one, using only the EU Court’s vague ruling as its guide.

So, Google has enlisted a panel of experts that will tour Europe in the fall of 2014, holding and conducting public meetings that will be live streamed and recorded. Google hopes the tour “will help inform our evolving policies in this area,” according to its Advisory Council webpage. In the meantime, they continue to muddle through the trove of requests they’re continuing to receive, all the while battling against the controversy of this historic ruling.