Wednesday

20th Sep 2017

Investigation

Europeans give Google final say on 'right to be forgotten'

  • Europeans see Google as the ultimate authority on link removal, unaware that DPAs can fight their corner (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

European citizens that want to have search results related to their name removed, generally accept Google as the definitive authority on what has become known as the 'right to be forgotten'.

In May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the bloc's citizens have the right to request Google and other search engines to remove links to personal information which is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”.

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Many have done so.

Google says it has received more than 300,000 requests, relating to over a million web addresses, or uniform resource locators (URLs). However, Google has refused to remove more than half of the URLs.

And while the court said citizens may ask the relevant national authority for a second opinion, figures compiled by EUobserver show that very few people are exercising this right to appeal.

In the majority of EU countries, maximum 2 percent of those who have received a rejection from Google, have subsequently appealed to their national data protection authority. In at least 10 member states, less than 1 percent has done so.

Very few appeal Google's verdict

Take Spain, for example, the home country of the citizen that sued Google in a case which eventually led to the European court's verdict.

Following the ruling on 13 May 2014, Google received more than 30,000 requests from Spain to delete links to personal information. It removed 63.4 percent of the URLs, it said in its Transparency Report.

Nota bene, there are limits to Google's transparency. The private company does not publish the rejection percentage for requests, which may include multiple URLs.

A Google spokesperson said in an e-mail that looking at URLs, and not requests, “is the most reliable indicator of how we are ultimately processing queries”, but did not say what the rejection percentage for requests is.

Let's assume that the refusal rate for URLs and requests are not too far apart. In that case, Google rejected almost 20,000 Spanish requests.

But according to the Spanish data protection agency (DPA), it has received 325 requests so far, which suggests that only 1.7 percent of the Spanish data subjects that received a rejection, subsequently appealed.

The rest did not yet contact their DPA, gave up, or assumed that the rejection from the California company constituted the final word on the matter.

The EU court in its ruling however, was clear:

“Where the controller [i.e. Google] does not grant the request, the data subject may bring the matter before the supervisory authority or the judicial authority so that it carries out the necessary checks and orders the controller to take specific measures accordingly.”

And perseverance can have its rewards.

Of the 261 requests that the Spanish DPA processed, 115 were in favour of the claimant – a 44 percent success rate.

400 requests from France

This website asked the data protection authorities in all 28 member states for information about the number of requests they received. 18 of them responded with data, Slovakia said it did not collect statistics. Of the larger EU countries, Germany, the UK, and Poland did not respond.

Until the end of September, Google received 178,906 requests for delisting from citizens in those 18 countries. It refused to remove URLs in 62 percent of the cases, or around 111,259 requests.

The DPAs in these countries received 1,064 requests from citizens to mediate – just under 1 percent of the rejections – and until now have told Google to remove links in 259 cases.

In most of the member states that responded to EUobserver's questions, the DPA received less than a hundred requests so far, and in five member states it received less than ten.

The highest number of requests sent to the data watchdog was in France, where the DPA said it received 400. In around 100 cases, the DPA told Google that it should remove the links it had initially refused.

But even 400 is a small number when compared to Google's data, which indicates it rejected over half of the 67,490 French requests it received.

The investigation showed that the DPA's methods and powers vary across the EU. Some set deadlines by which they expect Google to comply, somewhere between 10 days and 30 days, some don't set any.

Some DPAs pointed out that they do not have jurisdiction over the matter because Google has no office in their country.

Most relevant search engine

Google has offices in 20 of the EU's 28 member states, as well as in Switzerland and Norway, but no office in, for example, Slovenia, where the DPA received seven requests for link removal.

“We were thus forced to dismiss the requests due to lack of jurisdiction and instruct the complainant to file in another EU country where the DPA would have jurisdiction”, the Slovenian DPA wrote.

But even the data protector in Ireland, where Google is registered, has received only 42 complaints and granted 14 (compared to the 3,000 Google received and the 2,000 it rejected).

In most cases, Google complied with the DPA's request to remove links from its search results, but not all DPAs have the power to order removals.

In some cases Google refused to do so – this has happened six times in the Netherlands, for example. The Dutch DPA noted that it has limited legal competence to order Google to remove the links.

As a side note, the data collected by this website indicated that Google is by far seen as the most relevant search engine, over competitors Bing and Yahoo.

Spain's DPA said it had received five requests relating to Microsoft's Bing, and eight relating to Yahoo, France received “less than ten” from both. Most DPAs that responded said they had never had a request to have links removed from the search results from Bing or Yahoo.

The speed with which Google handles DPA requests also varies. Denmark reported Google's processing time can take between 1 and 5 weeks, Slovenia said it may take a “couple of months”, Romania said it may be “7 days, 30 days, or several months”.

How to make "childish stuff" disappear

As one applicant told EUobserver, the process to have links removed can be lengthy, uncertain, and frustrating.

He has asked to remain anonymous – obviously. Since this citizen is trying to remove his name from being connected to material posted online, naming him in this article would undermine that attempt.

He thinks he was one of the first in his country to use the Internet in the early 1990s, and started posting messages on online discussion forums.

“I was 15 or 16 years old, and wrote about drugs, sex, and religion. I asked advice on how to use cannabis, I revealed some details about psychological problems, I wrote a rant against religion. Stupid, childish stuff.”

Initially, the old postings did not bother him much, because they were relatively hidden in a text-only corner of the Internet called Usenet newsgroups.

But after Google bought the archive of messages in 2001, and later integrated the archive with its search engine, the old messages starting popping up.

“My name is really unique. I think there was one guy in the 1930s in the United States [who] had the same name, but no one alive today has it.”

And because he had used his full name to communicate in the Usenet newsgroups, Google would show the embarrassing texts he wrote as a teenager on the first page of results in a search for his name.

Despite several attempts, including contacting the boss of Google in his country after scouring the web to find his e-mail address, he was unable to convince Google to delete the links to the postings, because he had written them in the public domain.

Frustrated, he legally changed his name.

“Which made me feel really bad, because I liked that name.”

No results found

But in 2014 after the court ruling, our interview subject quickly appealed to Google, which had shortly after the ruling set up a system for its users to request the deletion of links.

Google initially rejected his request, until he received help from his national data protection authority.

“I thought it was settled. But one or two months later I searched my name, and the stuff was still there.”

He asked Google multiple times why the old webpages were still popping up in the search results.

“They wrote back saying they had already removed the search results, and suggested I might be searching from the wrong site or for the wrong name.”

Only after he contacted a Google press officer and wrote an anonymous blog about his case, did Google fully comply, he said.

“It took them five months.”

Maybe one day, “when I get old and my career is over”, he will change back his name to the one his parents gave him.

“I want that name to be on my grave.”

But for now, those who enter his full name in a European version of Google search, no longer find the compromising material.

Google's spokesperson told this website at the end of August that the company would consider an interview request made by EUobserver, but since then has not given a final yes or no.

He did note that “in the past Google did not make anyone available for an interview request about precisely this topic”, and in early October said “I'm afraid we cannot give out specifics”.

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