In the wake of the recent legal ruling in Spain, described popularly—albeit erroneously, in my opinion—as creating a “right to be forgotten”, Google has created a web-form that allows people to request that certain information be excluded from search results. More than 12,000 requests to remove personal data were submitted within the first 24 hours after Google posted the forms, according to the company. At one point Friday, Google was getting 20 requests per minute.
If it’s not really about being “forgotten”, what is at the heart of this decision? In an article dated 30 May 2014, ABC News asserted that it’s about the right to remove “unflattering” information, and characterizes the process as one of censorship, used by people to polish their reputations. Framing the issue in this way, however, is dismissive and an oversimplification.
BALANCING THE PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO KNOW
The decision does NOT provide carte blanche for anyone to force the removal of any information for any reason. In fact, the Google form is clear that in order to make a request, the following information is required:
(a) Provide the URL for each link appearing in a Google search for your name that you request to be removed. (The URL can be taken from your browser bar after clicking on the search result in question).
(b) Explain, if not clear, why the linked page is about you (or, if you are submitting this form on behalf of someone else, the person named above).
(c) Explain how this URL in search results is irrelevant, outdated or otherwise inappropriate. [Emphasis is mine.]
Even after this information is provided, there is no guarantee that the removal request will be approved. Google has indicated that requests will be assessed to determine whether there is a public interest in the information at issue, such as facts about financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials. Although other search engines that function in the EU have not yet announced their own plans for complying with the decision, similar factors can be expected to be considered.
Without a doubt, reputation is increasingly important in business, academia, politics, and in our culture as a whole. The availability of a wide range of data and information via search engines is an integral part of reviewing reputations and of making educated risk and trust assessments. That said, those reputation judgments are most effective when the available information is reliable and relevant.
In other words, it’s not necessary to make absolutely any and all information available, but rather it’s important to ensure the accuracy of the information that is available. To conflate informational self-determination with censorship is problematic, but to use such a characterization in order to defeat the basic precepts of data protection – which include accuracy and limiting information to that which is necessary – can actually be destructive both of individual rights and of the proper power of reputation.
This is a new area of policy and law touching on powerful information tools and very important personal rights. It’s imperative to get this right.