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16th Nov 2019

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Google should 'inform more' on right to be forgotten

Both Google and data protection authorities should do more to inform citizens about their right to have personal information removed from search engine results, several experts say in response to an investigation by this website about the so-called 'right to be forgotten'.

On Thursday (8 October), EUobserver published findings of an inquiry conducted among data protection authorities (DPAs), which indicated that very few citizens whose requests for removal from search engine results were rejected by Google, ask for a second opinion from their DPA. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled citizens had this right in May 2014.

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  • Europeans may not even know they have the right to complain to their data protection authority (Photo: Trey Ratcliff)

According to Joe McNamee, of the non-profit digital rights lobby group EDRi, it is possible that Europeans do not even know they have the right to complain to their DPA.

He pointed to a survey published earlier this year, which found that only 1 percent of respondents knew who the data protection authority was in the United Kingdom.

An EU-wide survey, published last June, showed 61 percent of respondents had not heard of a public authority responsible for protecting their digital rights.

However, the share of people who did know there was such an authority increased from 33 percent in 2010, to 37 percent in 2015.

Lack of awareness

And lack of awareness may not be the only reason for the apparently low number of appeals, said Martin Husovec, a Slovak-born assistant professor at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society in the Netherlands.

"We should surely not assume that all the requests sent to Google are legitimate. It makes perfect sense that the number of follow-up requests is significantly lower, because applying to a state authority forces a citizen to think twice [about] whether his or her situation is really in need of this kind of strong remedy", he wrote in an e-mailed response.

Husovec noted that lack of awareness and "a fear of bringing a personal matter to an official forum" may also play a role, as well as the lack of uncertainty of the scope of what has become known as the "right to be forgotten", but is actually a right to be "delisted" from search engine results.

Both Husovec and McNamee suggested Google could inform citizens better of their appeal options.

According to two rejection e-mails from Google which this website has seen, the US company does refer to the possibility of asking for a second opinion.

"You may have the right to raise this issue with your country's data protection authority if you are unhappy with the decision that Google has taken", it said in the e-mails.

McNamee said it should be "fairly easy" for Google to include a link to a page listing the contact pages of the EU's DPAs.

Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld told this website in an e-mail DPAs also have a role to play.

"If indeed the reason is lack of awareness, I think both DPAs and companies (not just Google) would have a task in raising awareness and informing users. Better awareness is also in the interest of companies: a procedure through a DPA is better than facing endless court cases", In 't Veld said.

The MEP added that she does expect awareness of digital rights to increase. "Until the ruling [on right to be forgotten] very few people even realised they had any kind of right to erasure, although it had been in the Directive since 1995."

New regulation

A spokesperson for the European Commission said its proposal for a new regulation about data protection, which is currently being negotiated, includes an obligation for companies to inform citizens of their rights to complain to DPAs, as well as tasking those DPAs to "promote the awareness of the public on risks, rules, safeguards and rights in relation to the processing of personal data".

The new regulation should also "spell out in greater detail the rules on mandatory cooperation and mutual assistance between national data protection supervisory authorities" so that "a citizen can always complain to his local supervisory authority, which then will have to work together with the supervisory authority in another member state to follow up the complaint".

Currently, citizens of member states where, for example, Google has no office, are forced to contact the data protection authority in a country where it does.

Meanwhile, Husovec said there should be more transparency about how requests for removal are handled. He was one of 80 signatories of an open letter to Google asking for more transparency on how it handles "right to be forgotten" requests.

"We should also recognize as a problem that the cases where Google complies never get second reconsideration. Unless we consider a media outrage as a type of potential remedy. Hence if Google now assumes that the right is broader than it should be, there is no way how to find out that it should be more narrow”, said Husovec.

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