A year of trouble and strife for Google and the 'Right to be forgotten'

One year ago the European Court of Justice ruled that Google should remove URL links from its search engine at the request of just one internet user; now, the tech giant finds itself fighting a privacy battle against users, regulators, academics and activists.

A year of trouble and strife for Google and the 'Right to be forgotten'
A year of trouble and strife for Google and the 'Right to be forgotten'

Back in May last year, the ECJ ruled, in the ‘Google Spain v AEPD and Mario Costeja Gonzalez' case, that Google must remove links relating to an individual user. That user was Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who successfully managed to argue that links to an auction notice from 1995 should be removed as he had moved on in his life, and he had a right to privacy.

Google begrudgingly obeyed, and the rule has been wide-reaching ever since, with Google and other search engines effectively bound, under existing the European Data Protection Directive, to delete information that is deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.”

This was more commonly referred to as the ‘Right to be forgotten', a key component of the forthcoming EU Data Protection Regulation, and there have been millions of requests submitted by internet users ever since.

Yesterday marked the anniversary of that ruling and recent history suggests that this has been a tricky period for Google, which has not only been plagued with takedown requests, good and bad, but which has continually faced questions over this censorship, transparency and geographical reach (some have called for requests to cover US-based Google.com too).

A debate on censorship was always likely with Google effectively deciding what was right and wrong, and that was only heightened by the firm's own figures – it has approved only 41.3 percent of the nearly 1 million (922,638) URL removal requests received over the last year.

The UK's Information Commissioner Office (ICO) has taken umbrage with Google's censorship too, saying that there are at least 50 cases where the US firm has got it wrong. ICO says it has handled more than 180 complaints from people unhappy that their requests to Google had been turned down, although the regulator concedes that Google got it right in three-quarters of those cases.

"This suggests that, for the most part, Google is getting the balance right between the protection of the individual's privacy and the interests of internet users,” said David Smith, the deputy commissioner of the ICO.

"However, this still leaves a significant number of cases where we believe Google hasn't got it quite right and it has been asked to revise its decision." Smith added that there are still disputes to be resolved, and hinted that the ICO could use its enforcement powers, which include levying a fine, should Google not choose to act.

Censorship is only one part of the problem however, with transparency another topical issue. Yesterday, 80 high-profile academics, include Oxford University's  Ian Brown, Cambridge's Julia Powles and Kent's Eerke Boiten, wrote an open letter to the search giant calling for the company to be more transparent, and to release compliance data. They called for Google to be more open in what requests get granted or not, and how it differs on a geographical basis.

“While Google's decisions will seem reasonable enough to most, in the absence of real information about how representative these are, the arguments about the validity and application of the RTBF are impossible to evaluate with rigour,” reads the letter.

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