Forgetting History

In May of 2014 the European Court of Justice, which is roughly the equivalent of a supreme court for the countries of the European Union, decided that their privacy laws provided citizens with a new right: the right to be forgotten.

Specifically, the court ordered Google to remove from search results that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed” in European countries. The order was later extended to include Bing and other search engines.

It’s been interesting to watch the whole “right to be forgotten” story unfold. Now, a year and a half later, there are still far more questions than answers about this concept and how it is applied, not only in Europe but world wide. Questions that include:

Why didn’t the court require that the original material be taken down? From what I’ve read it’s because the justices felt existing libel and slander laws (which are much tougher in the EU than the US) covered that territory so this ruling applies only to search engine listings. Think of it as removing the card from the library catalog but leaving the offending book on the shelf (an analogy for all of us who remember “card” catalogs :-)

Who decides what’s “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”? Good question about very vague criteria. Turns out the court left that up to Google and the other search providers to determine. Anyone in the affected European Union countries can submit a request and then… someone at Google decides. And they have received a lot of requests.

Since the policy was put into place last May, Google reports that it’s received 348,085 total requests to remove links, covering a total of 1,234,092 URLs. Around 42 percent of the links (excluding cases that are still pending) ended up being removed.

Are stories written about the “right to be forgotten” process, ones that include links to material removed from search results, also required to be removed? Evidentally, yes. At least according to the UK “data protection watchdog.” A news site called Tech Dirt has been testing the process by writing a new post linking back to their removed posts every time they are notified of the removal. So far, they seem to be winning and many of the more traditional news outlets are posting their own lists of “forgotten” articles.

Does the “right to be forgotten” extend outside the European Union? Well, it seems the French government thinks it should. Last summer they ordered that the concept be applied everywhere in the world Google did business, with threats of heavy fines for non-compliance. Needless to say that didn’t go over well outside of France and, as far as I can determine, Google has not complied with the order.

There are, of course, many more questions about a “right to be forgotten”, along with the broader topic of privacy in a digital age, with very little that will be settled soon.

However, it’s a very interesting subject, one that anyone who lives and works on the web should be paying attention to. More ranting to come in this little corner very soon. You have been warned. :-)

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