Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group, has sent a letter to the United States Federal Trade Commission, asking for Americans to share in Europe’s ‘Right to Be Forgotten.’
For over a year, Europeans have been empowered by a court ruling to ask Google to remove search engine results that link to inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant or excessive personal information. To date, 280,709 requests have been made to remove 1,020,941 URLS; of these, 41% have been removed. In determining which requests to honor, Google weighs personal safety against public interest. In other words, unknown victims are likely to have outdated links removed, public figures are not.
For example, Google granted a Swedish woman’s request to remove links to pages showing her address and an Italian crime victim’s request to remove links to pages discussing the crime, but denied the requests of a UK media professional who regretted content he had posted and a well-known Polish business person who wanted to disassociate himself from a lawsuit.
Whether links are removed or not, information will continue to exist on the internet—Google merely controls what shows up in its search results. Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director John M. Simpson sees the Right to Be Forgotten as a return to the days of Privacy By Obscurity. In his letter, he argued, “Before the Internet if someone did something foolish when they were young—and most of us probably did—there might well be a public record of what happened. Over time, as they aged, people tended to forget whatever embarrassing things someone did in their youth…This reality that our youthful indiscretions and embarrassments and other matters no longer relevant slipped from the general public’s consciousness is Privacy By Obscurity. The Digital Age has ended that. Everything—all our digital footprints—are instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device.”
Simpson proceeded to berate Google for claiming to respect privacy despite not offering Americans the simple protections it offers Europeans: “Google’s own experience in Europe demonstrates that Right To Be Forgotten requests can be managed in a way that is fair and not burdensome for Google.”
Had Simpson spoken with Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin of France’s National Committee on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), he may have thought twice about making a model of Google’s behavior in Europe. On June 12, CNIL gave Google 15 days to change its delisting practices or risk facing sanctions (a fine of 150,000 Euros). At issue is Google’s practice of limiting the Right to Be Forgotten to country-specific versions of the website, which means that a request submitted in Germany could only be removed from google.de and a request submitted in the United Kingdom from google.co.uk.
CNIL states, "In accordance with the CJEU judgement, the CNIL considers that in order to be effective, delisting must be carried out on all extensions of the search engine and that the service provided by Google search constitute a single processing."
Consumer Watchdog is right to ask Google to protect America's Right to Be Forgotten, especially following the company's recent decision to remove requested links to revenge porn. However, the consumer advocacy group needs to set its sights higher than current European practice. In a globalized world with VPNs increasingly the norm, a Right to Be Forgotten on one country's version of Google is only a click away from being very much remembered.