It’s been over five years since the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” came into effect. Surely the entity most heavily impacted by the legislation—which allows individuals to request that negative information about them be removed from search engines—has been Google.
Last month, Google issued a report on how it has handled the right to be forgotten so far, and it’s filled with stats on the millions of URLs that people have requested to be delisted from the search engine. We take a look and delve into the implications for access to information and the right to privacy.
What is the right to be forgotten?
First coming into effect in May 2014, the right to be forgotten is a right for individuals to have negative information about them removed from internet searches. To request removal from a search engine, the person must submit a form through the search engine’s website, listing the URLs to be removed.
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Following a longstanding legal battle between the EU and Google, a European court determined in September that the removals shall only apply to searches within the EU. This means anyone looking up someone from outside the bloc will still be able to see the person’s embarrassing photos or criminal history, even if they have been deleted from Europe-based searches.
The right to be forgotten—referred to as “the right to erasure” under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws—is controversial. On the one hand there is the need for privacy and combating phenomena like revenge porn. On the other is the public’s right to information and the danger of creating an environment of censorship. Search engine operators are required to weigh these two opposing needs in deciding whether a URL is to be delisted.
Five years on, by the numbers
Google’s report looks at not only how people are exercising their right to be forgotten, but also at how the company has weighed public interest vs. privacy needs. Here is some of the data Google has released about the URL delisting requests it received between May 2014 and May 2019.
Requested URLs to be removed: 3,231,693
Unique requesters: 502,648
Delisting rate: 44.5%
Dominant URL delisting requests
Personal information on social media and directory sites: 29%
Legal history reported by news outlets and government pages: 21%
What’s to hide?
Type of information requested for delisting
Professional information: 24% (20.7% requests accepted)
Crime: 9% (48.2% requests accepted)
Self-authored: 9% (34.4% requests accepted)
Professional wrongdoing: 8% (19.5% requests accepted)
Personal information: 8% (96.8% requests accepted)
Political platform: 4% (3.4% requests accepted)
Sensitive personal information: 2% (92.6% requests accepted)
The largest segment of delisting requests had to do with a person’s current profession. This information was frequently deemed to be in the public interest to be available in search engines, so Google only allowed a low percentage to be delisted. There were far fewer requests to delist pages with personal information such as home addresses and contact information, as well as sensitive personal information like sexual orientation, but nearly all of these requests were accepted.
The report adds: “Instances of when a URL appeared in the search results for a requester’s name, but nevertheless had no reference to the requester in the content, had a delisting rate of 100% due to no competing public interest.”
Variations by country
Top 10 URL removal requests by country
United Kingdom: 13.4%
Why do the French participate so heavily in the right to be forgotten? France’s population is about the same as the UK’s and is smaller than Germany’s, yet it makes up the largest chunk of delisting requests.
Google’s analysis points to a popular French directory site for looking up addresses and phone numbers of individuals and professionals. A large number of requests have been received for delisting URLs on this site. However, while a directory page might be delisted from a search engine, directories usually have their own search functions, so individuals can still be found that way.
Who wants to be forgotten?
Private individuals: 84%
Public figures: 4%
Corporate entities: 2%
While 84% of the requests were made by private individuals, perhaps our perception of public figures and politicians is the most altered by the right to be forgotten. Celebrities and government officials tended to use law firms and reputation management services to make numerous requests. In fact, the remaining 16% of requests were made by just 0.2% of requesters.