Europeans have the right to request the removal of links in search engine results – what is now commonly referred to as the “right to be forgotten,” thanks to a May 2014 court ruling.
Should Americans also have the right to be forgotten?
According to Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy organization, the answer is “yes” – and the group wants the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to do something about it.
In a complaint filed this week with the FTC, Consumer Watchdog says Google has an obligation to protect US consumers’ privacy rights by extending the ability to request the removal of links from Google search results to Americans.
Since the ruling last year by the European Court of Justice requiring Google (and other search engines such as Bing) to take down links that are no longer “relevant,” Google has reluctantly obliged with a request form available in European countries.
As of this morning, there had been 282,001 total requests so far to remove more than 1 million URLs. Google has taken down 41% of those URLs.
But Consumer Watchdog claims that Google is engaging in “unfair” and “deceptive” practices by not giving Americans the same ability to request link removals.
The FTC’s mandate, under the Federal Trade Commission Act, is to protect US consumers from unfair or deceptive practices in commerce.
In recent years, the FTC has evolved from an agency mainly concerned with anti-trust issues into the US government’s primary regulator of privacy issues raised by emerging communications and financial technologies.
According to Consumer Watchdog’s complaint, because Google does not offer Americans “a key privacy tool,” Google is engaging in deceptive practices by “aggressively and repeatedly” making claims to protect users’ privacy, such as those in its statement of privacy principles.
The group’s complaint also says Google is engaging in unfair practices because not offering the right to be forgotten causes “substantial injury” to US consumers.
As examples of the harm caused, Consumer Watchdog cites cases where links showing up in search results for a person’s name have led to job losses or emotional distress:
- A school guidance counselor was fired when photos of her posing as a lingerie model were found online and shown to the school principal.
- Mugshot photos of a woman who was arrested and charged with domestic violence after being attacked by her boyfriend show up among the top search results for her name, even though the charges were later dropped.
- Grisly photos of a young woman decapitated in an accident show up when her name is searched, causing harm to her parents.
Interestingly, the above cases all involve photos – Google frequently removes images from search results that are protected under copyright, and recently announced it will grant takedown requests for “revenge porn” images.
Google also removes other kinds of information from search results, such as national identification numbers (like US Social Security numbers), bank account numbers and credit card numbers.
Under the European court ruling, search engines do not have to remove links to information that serves the public interest, such as news articles about public figures.
Google might have a hard time leaning on the First Amendment, or claiming that its search algorithms are impartial, as reasons not to grant the right to be forgotten to Americans.
What do you think, readers? Should Americans, and everyone else outside of Europe, also have the right to be forgotten?
Is control over what information shows up in search results a privacy right? Does removing links to content count as censorship?
Let us know in the comments below, or take our snap poll.
Image of hand touching delete button courtesy of Shutterstock.
12 comments on “Do Americans have the same right as Europeans to be “forgotten” by Google?”
Nobody has the right to whitewash history.
Censorship is never an acceptable solution.
I think the truth is that this is not censorship in any sense. (Google removes the link, not the information. You can’t rewrite history simply by taking posters off the wall, after all.)
For example, if you have a spent conviction – many countries have laws that embody some sort of forgiveness and rehabilitation for crooks, so that minor offences no longer count after a few years – and you are officially asked, “Have you ever been convicted of an offence,” you are entitled to say, “No.” That’s so you can avoid having to say, “Yes, I was convicted once but it doesn’t count any more.” Since it doesn’t count, it doesn’t need to be mentioned, and then no inappropriate conclusions can be drawn from it.
Information about that conviction will presumably live on in the record somewhere, where a determined researcher can find it, and where it will remain part of the world’s “historical truth.” That’s not the same as a search engine making it trivial for anyone to turn it up with ease.
Seems a bit of an irony that if you want to go up in Google’s ad rankings you can pay some money and that will be considered unexceptionable (as it should be), but if you want to go down in Google’s unpaid rankings because there is a legal, moral or just plain reasonable purpose for asking, you’ll have to run the gamut of people accusing you of “whitewashing” history 🙂
What next? Will it become unacceptable to remove photos or articles you published online last month, because “changing your mind” will be considered a suspicious cover story for “hiding dirty secrets”?
Removing self published articles is entirely different. News is news, and altering the search results does amount to a form of censorship. Google is ultimately serving a curated view of the internet.
If you live in a country like China, their government heavily curates the internet available to its populous. I really don’t see this as being any different.
Ultimately, it is a fruitless effort anyway, as anyone willing to dig far enough or use a different search engine will have access to the information regardless of Googles “forgetfulness”. So why go through all this effort and expense for a charade?
This is naive. Many people make mistakes early in life and regret it later. In the days before the internet you would have had to scour newspaper archives in your local library to find out anything about a person. Now it is available for life at the click of a mouse button.
I recall the case in Britain of a politically active teenager who ended up in the press because of ill-judged remarks made on Twitter. Everybody has made stupid remarks when they are teenagers, but hers are now available to see forever for the rest of her life probably.
It is interesting the way Americans think. This is no censorship, since the information is always available; they are just removing the link in the search engine, not the information. If you really want to know someone you can find it in the web,with a little more effort.
They want to avoid prejudice by a first link that will appear all your life by a stupid mistake (links of serious crimes can not be deleted)
It is also funny that Americans preach free speech aloud but can not sing happy birthday in public without being sued if they dont pay the royalties before.
Can we have a right to be forgotten by GCHQ, MI5 and NSA, please?
Some years ago they asked people to report anyone taking picture of buildings as potential terrorists. I don’t expect that when Google Streetview came along they expunged those records as anyone could now see anywhere online.
No. Its frickin ridiculous. I will just use another search engine.
This coming from a not so proud american.
As an American, I can tell you that this will never fly because of our cherished constitutional guarantee of free speech. Over the past 125 years or so, U.S. legal precedent has created a legal fiction that corporations are persons and are thus due the same constitutional protections as individual citizens. Because of this, unless the information on a page linked by Google is in some way demonstrably false or defamatory, free speech will trump FTC regulations and there will never be a legal method to force Google to remove links in the U.S.
Now, whether corporations like Google *should* be considered to have the same constitutional rights under the law as a person is a completely different topic for discussion! Personally I think we should do away with that fiction (and software patents while we’re at it), and then we can start thinking about a digital-age “right to be forgotten.”
What about content on the internet archive? https://archive.org/
There’s lots of webpages there that are no longer on the originating websites. Is Google required to ask archive.org to remove personal info etc. as well as on its sites and links?
When anyone outside of the US can have the same rights as US citizens, then US citizens can have the same rights as everyone else. NSA are you listening (oh yes, because I’m not a US citizen)
This is absurd. Google doesn’t produce the content. If someone doesn’t like what was written, that is between them and the author of the website. Google doesn’t own the internet and it is not their job to moderate what people see.
I think the point is that Google makes it incredibly easy to find stuff to support almost any side of any argument, which can and does lead to trouble. And, since Google isn’t making stuff easy to find as part of any social contract, but rather as part of its online ad business…why shouldn’t someone say, “I’d like that link to go away?” Why is that inherently wrong? Why is the preference of the individual less important than the convenience of everyone else who knows how use a web browser?
In other words: you’re free to try to find out your version of the truth about someone else. But if you really are that keen, and it really is that important, maybe you should put in the hard yards, and do some real research, rather than just typing that person’s name into Google and cherry picking from the answers?
(Incidentally, the social benefit of using facts wisely is why truth is not an absolute defence against libel in some jurisidictions. What you say about someone must be true *and in the public interest*. The “right to be forgotten” saga – perhaps the sneaky-sounding name does the principle no favours – falls into a similar area, I think you could say.)