Anonymous Internet: The Right to Be Forgotten

November 12, 2014

Is there a public need to know that your home was in foreclosure a decade ago? Does it benefit society to learn that your former spouse was murdered or that someone questioned your sexual orientation on a forum group? When does the public’s need for information outweigh a person’s right to privacy, and the right to overcome a black mark in the past?

As the digital age becomes our reality, these questions beg for answers. With a few keystrokes, anyone can find out much more about your past than you likely care to think about. The European Union has already taken legal steps to allow people to remove URLs from Internet searches that might damage their privacy rights — will the United States follow their lead?

Laws Governing the “Right to Be Forgotten”

Anonymous internetPeople have the right to go on with their lives, without having their past follow them forever.

In 1995, the European Union adopted into law a measure called the Data Protection Directive. This law helps protect the privacy or European citizens when it comes to personal data collected and distributed about them. In May 2014, the European Court of Justice expanded the original directive with the “Right to Be Forgotten,” which allows European citizens to petition data collection and distribution agencies like newspapers or Google to remove information about them that is inaccurate, irrelevant, or does not serve the public interest.

What does all this mean? To the wife of a murder victim in Italy, it meant that Google no longer displayed results about her husband’s murder when someone searched for her name. For a German man who complained about a humiliating exchange about him on a forum group, it means he no longer has to worry about those results popping up if an employer or potential mate Googles his name.

Google’s Rules for Removal

Obviously, the biggest fish in the data collection and distribution sea is Google. Commanding almost 68 percent of search engine traffic, more people find information via Google search than virtually any other method. Within the first six months of the adoption of the EU’s Right to Be Forgotten, Google had received 150,000 requests to remove potentially damaging or embarrassing URLs from their search results. These requests involved one-half million URLs, 42 percent of which Google complied to removing. This accounts for 170,000 URLs removed from Google’s search results. The results, however, still mention that URLs are missing. Google considers removal in cases where:

• The information is outdated
• The information is not accurate
• The information does not suit the public’s best interest

The first two are easy — Google doesn’t want to show inaccurate or outdated results. The third one, however, can be challenging. In the cases of the Italian woman whose husband was murdered, Google determined that there was no public benefit to including results about his murder in searches for her name. Her right to privacy outweighed public curiosity.

However, Google has denied requests when they deemed the public had a right to know the information within the URLs in question. A doctor who requested that search results about a medical procedure he allegedly botched be removed was denied. A financial professor who was convicted of financial crimes was also denied when he requested URLs about his crimes be removed. Google maintains that it is important that the public have access to information about things like financial scams, medical malpractice, criminal convictions, and the public conduct of government officials.

Countries and Citizens Where Google Will Consider Removal

The Right to Be Forgotten affects all 28 countries in the European Union, and Google also considers URL removals for four additional nations: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, but has not yet released an explanation regarding those additions. Likely, it has something to do with trade and information-sharing agreements between the EU and those countries, which historically have had close ties to the EU. The directive also applies to non-citizens who reside in these countries, regardless of their citizenship status or country of origin. For example, an American citizen living in Berlin can request information removal just as a citizen and resident of London or Paris can.

Europe Pressures United States for Tougher Privacy Protection

Anonymous internetWill U.S. lawmakers ever listen to the EU or privacy advocates?

The EU and US have long been in negotiations regarding information sharing, particularly when it comes to sharing data that could be useful for thwarting terrorist and other criminal activities. However, the EU is considering suspension of such data sharing agreements unless the US takes steps to improve the protection of online information about their citizens. These tensions got even higher when the spying practices of the NSA came to light due to Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing.

Will American lawmakers succumb to the pressures from the EU and privacy advocates in the States? That remains to be seen. With political heat mounting over other pressing issues (such as healthcare, immigration, and financial policies), it could go either way: US lawmakers could push through less-pressing issues such as Internet privacy to prove to the public that they’re at least doing something, or they could stall on this issue like they tend to do everything else. If you need Google to consider removing content about yourself, you can always flag the content for abuse or report it to Google’s Legal Removal Requests.

Better yet, cover your tracks from the beginning by using anonymous Internet tools. Web searchers, SearchLock is the anonymous browsing tool that offers anonymous surfing that’s easy to set up.