Google says it’s received more than 650,000 requests to remove certain websites from its search results since a European court ordered the company to allow Europeans the “right to be forgotten” in 2014.
In a company “transparency report” and research paper released this week, Google said most of those requests were to remove five or fewer URLs from its search results. In all, Google says it received requests to remove more than 2.43 million URLs since the end of May 2014, and it’s removed about 43 percent of them.
In May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered Google and other search engines that operate in Europe to allow individuals to ask the sites to delist certain search results relating to a person’s name, if the information is “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing.” People in European Union countries along with Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein may make the request.
During the three and a half years until the end of 2017, Google says there were almost 400,000 requesting entities. In the past two years, celebrities requested more than 41,000 delistings and politicians and government officials requested almost 34,000. The company says just 1,000 requesters were “frequent requesters,” often “law firms and reputation management services,” which made up 15 percent of all requests.
Google says 89 percent of requests came from private individuals since it began taking more detailed information about them in the beginning of 2016. Social media sites, directories, news articles and government pages make up most of the links that people want removed. A little more than half of all requests came from just three countries: France, Germany and the U.K.
For example, one request came from a person in France “to delist several URLs from Google Search about his election as leader of a political movement and other political positions he held when he was a minor,” the company said. Google says it complied with most of that request.
The underlying information on a third-party website is of course not deleted in this instance, but it becomes much more difficult to find if it no longer appears in Google’s search results.
The search results people see in countries outside Europe are not affected. Google says it uses “geolocation signals to restrict access to the URL from the country of the requester” and delists the link from all of its European Union country search engines (like google.fr or google.es).
Google says it evaluates “each request on a case-by-case basis.” The company says it weighs the public interest when determining when to remove a link:
“Determining whether content is in the public interest is complex and may mean considering many diverse factors, including—but not limited to—whether the content relates to the requester’s professional life, a past crime, political office, position in public life, or whether the content is self-authored content, consists of government documents, or is journalistic in nature.”
That means that it’s up to a private company to determine what’s in the public interest — which “places a huge, huge burden on them but also gives them a lot of power,” as professor Meg Ambrose of Georgetown University told NPR in 2014.
A Spanish man brought the original case which spurred the 2014 ruling. On Tuesday, an English court heard the first “right to be forgotten” case in that country, from a businessman who “was convicted of conspiracy to account falsely in the late 1990s and wants the search engine to remove results that mention his case, including web pages published by a national newspaper,” The Guardian reported.
Google is also battling with French privacy regulators, who insisted on having the company remove search results globally, not just in Europe. The case is now being considered by the EU’s Court of Justice. According to Politico, a decision isn’t likely before next year.