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Google Gives the Internet Amnesia in Europe

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the Internet’s greatest assets is also perhaps its biggest curse—it never forgets. Except in the European Union, where a court last month ruled that people have the right to have certain sensitive information about themselves deleted from Google search results. (pdf) As of Tuesday morning, the region’s most popular search engine has received 41,000 takedown requests via a new Web page the company created late last week to comply with the court’s ruling.

E.U. users visiting Google’s new search removal request page can indicate the Web links they want removed and describe why they want them taken down, including why they are “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate,” as per the E.U. Court of Justice’s decision. These requesters must submit a scan of a valid government identification to weed out what Google describes as “fraudulent requests.”

Google received 12,000 requests on the first day the page went live, at one point handling 20 requests per minute. Whether a request is valid is largely up to Google, although E.U. ministers are meeting this week to attempt to clarify how such requests should be handled. “The court’s ruling requires Google to make difficult judgments about an individual’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to know,” the company said in a statement. “We’re creating an expert advisory committee to take a thorough look at these issues. We’ll also be working with data protection authorities and others as we implement this ruling.” The company may have to hire staff and/or pull existing staff from their current assignments in order to keep up, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The company already offered the ability to remove certain—using its own discretion—results or information from its Google+ social network, YouTube, image search and other services. Although Google search removal will be an option to 32 European countries where the form is available, the company has no plans at this time to expand Web search takedowns outside this region.

The E.U. announced its intention to create a “right to be forgotten” policy in January 2012. A year ago, however, the E.U.’s highest court declared that Google did not have to remove personal information from its search results, even if that information was damaging to an individual’s reputation. The court reversed course on May 13 when it identified Google as a “controller” that “processes” Web data, providing a search service that derives its results from information published on sites throughout the Web. As such, Google is in a position to “to affect significantly the fundamental rights to privacy” and must play a role in protecting those rights.

Whether such a ruling would fly in the United States is unclear. California lawmakers last year passed a law that will require Web companies, starting in 2015, to remove scandalous or embarrassing online information or activity about minors when they request it. The state already allows certain people, such as victims of domestic violence, to have information struck from their online records.

Still, there are plenty of loopholes around California’s attempt to protect minors from the Web’s omniscience—something for Congress to keep in mind if it ever contemplates federal legislation. For example, if a minor posts an image of his or her own underage drinking, the law can help get that photo removed from public viewing. If someone else posts that same photo, the minor has no recourse. Nor does the law extend to adults who want to go back and delete material they posted as minors.

About the Author: Larry is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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