Skip to main content

Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley

How Google Can Illuminate the"Right to Be Forgotten" Debate

Happy Birthday, Right-to-Have-Certain-Results-De-Listed-from-Searches-on-Your-Own-Name-,-Depending-on-the-Circumstances!

It’s now been a year since the European Court of Justice shocked (some) people with a decision that has mistakenly been described as announcing a “right to be forgotten.”

Today, 80 Internet scholars sent an open letter to Google asking the company to release additional aggregate data about the company’s implementation of the court decision.  As they explain,

The undersigned have a range of views about the merits of the ruling. Some think it rightfully vindicates individual data protection/privacy interests. Others think it unduly burdens freedom of expression and information retrieval. Many think it depends on the facts.

We all believe that implementation of the ruling should be much more transparent for at least two reasons: (1) the public should be able to find out how digital platforms exercise their tremendous power over readily accessible information; and (2) implementation of the ruling will affect the future of the [“right to be forgotten”] in Europe and elsewhere, and will more generally inform global efforts to accommodate privacy rights with other interests in data flows.

Although Google has released a Transparency Report with some aggregate data and some examples of the delinking decisions reached so far, the signatories find that effort insufficient. “Beyond anecdote,” they write,

we know very little about what kind and quantity of information is being delisted from search results, 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.

For now, they add, the participants in the delisting debate “do battle in a data vacuum, with little understanding of the facts.”

More detailed data is certainly much needed. What remains striking, in the meantime, is how little understanding of the facts many people continue to have about what the decision itself mandates. A year after the decision was issued, an associate editor for Engadget, for example, still writes that, as a result of it, “if Google or Microsoft hides a news story, there may be no way to get it back.” 

To “get it back”?! Into the results of a search on a particular person’s name? Because that is the entire scope of the delinking involved here—when the delinking does happen.

In response to a request for comment on the Internet scholars’ open letter, a Google spokesman told The Guardian that “it’s helpful to have feedback like this so we can know what information the public would find useful.” In that spirit of helpful feedback, may I make one more suggestion?

Google’s RTBF Transparency Report (updated on May 14) opens with the line, “In a May 2014 ruling, … the Court of Justice of the European Union found that individuals have the right to ask search engines like Google to remove certain results about them.” Dear Googlers, could you please add a line or two explaining that “removing certain results” does not mean “removing certain stories from the Internet, or even from the Google search engine”?

Given the anniversary of the decision, many reporters are turning to the Transparency Report for information for their articles. This is a great educational opportunity. With a line or two, while it weighs its response to the important request for more detailed reporting on its actions, Google could already improve the chances of a more informed debate.

[I’ve written about the “right to be forgotten” a number of times: chronologically, see “The Right to Be Forgotten, Or the Right to Edit?” “Revisiting the ‘Right to Be Forgotten'” “The Right to Be Forgotten, The Privilege to Be Remembered” (that one published in Re/code), “On Remembering, Forgetting, and Delisting,” “Luciano Floridi’s Talk at Santa Clara University,” and, most recently, “Removing a Search Result: An Ethics Case Study.”]

(Photo by Robert Scoble, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.)

Ethics
internet,blog,article,privacy

Subscribe to Internet Ethics: Views from Silicon Valley

* indicates required