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Following an ECJ ruling back in May, as EU citizens we now have a ‘right to be forgotten’ which means we have the right to request the removal of links to any irrelevant, outdated, excessive or inaccurate information about us from search engines and other non-media websites.


Paul Heritage-Redpath, Product Manager

This obviously has huge implications for the search engine giants. Google, who recently discussed their response to this ruling with EU regulators, has reportedly received 91,000 requests covering a total of 328,000 links and has already approved more than 50% of the removals.

The ruling has caused a huge amount of controversy. Not only are people debating the impact of ‘censoring’ the Internet (which we will come back to shortly) but the EU is reportedly unhappy with the fact that Google currently notifies the owners of the affected websites when a link is removed. In a small number of cases this has actually awoken the original reporters who then revisited the story, which quite clearly completely defeats the point of the ruling.

So, if you have something you want taken down, do you take the chance of reporting the links and potentially having the story shared all over the news again or do you ignore it and hope no one notices?

Slippery slope
However, the real concern for most is that this is the first step towards censorship of the Internet. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has argued that search engines should not be left in charge of ‘censoring history’ and that it’s ‘dangerous to have companies decide what should and shouldn’t be allowed to appear on the Internet.’

However, Labour MEP Claude Moraes argued that it’s not ‘junior staff’ making these decisions but that ‘data supervisory authorities’ who are the final arbiters in disputed cases. Christopher Graham, UK information Commissioner added “All this talk about rewriting history and airbrushing embarrassing bits from your past – this is nonsense, that’s not going to happen. There will certainly be occasions when there ought to be less prominence given to things that are done and dusted, over and done with. The law would regard that as a spent conviction, but so far as Google is concerned there’s no such thing as a spent conviction.”

Is it really worth it?
How important is our ‘right to be forgotten’ and is it really worth all of this hassle? Well, if current procedures stay as they are, probably not. This is an EU ruling and therefore only affects EU citizens which is why Google is only removing the links on their EU based sites (e.g. Google.co.uk). If you choose to visit google.com (US based site) you can still retrieve the ‘removed’ links. So, basically, you’re only really forgotten in Europe!

Google and its search engine counterparts are also complaining that the criteria they have been given to help them decide what to remove is too vague and inadequate, leading to further concerns over a company making this judgement.

It’s early days for the ‘right to be forgotten’ but we foresee a long and complicated future ahead. Not only does this topic have censorship implications and journalistic ‘freedom of speech’ implications but it is also affected by existing data retention laws, particularly for businesses and it’s going to be a fine balance to satisfy all ‘rights’.

UPDATED: 4pm 31st July 2014

The Register reports that the UK Lords have branded the ECJ ruling as “unworkable, unreasonable and wrong in principle”. The EU subcommittee on Home Affairs, Health and Education said in a report this was a “massive burden” that could be borne by Google, but not by smaller search engines. And it added that it was wrong to leave the question of what belongs on the Internet up to corporations anyway. “It is wrong in principle to leave search engines themselves the task of deciding whether to delete information or not, based on vague, ambiguous and unhelpful criteria, and we heard from witnesses how uncomfortable they are with the idea of a commercial company sitting in judgment on issues like that,” Baroness Prashar said.

The UK Government is now reportedly fighting against the ‘right to be forgotten’. The conclusion of the House of Lords  European Union Committee is: “It is clear to us that neither the 1995 Directive, nor the Court’s interpretation of the Directive, reflects the current state of communications service provision, where global access to detailed personal information has become part of the way of life.

It is no longer reasonable or even possible for the right to privacy to allow data subjects a right to remove links to data which are accurate and lawfully available.

We agree with the Government that the ‘right to be forgotten’ as it is in the Commission’s proposal, and a fortiori as proposed to be amended by the Parliament, must go. It is misguided in principle and unworkable in practice.”

Have your say!

Do you think this latest ruling could lead to censorship problems? Do you think the search engines need to do more to remove these links effectively? Or do you think by reporting such links it will simply reawaken the original reporters and further publicise the news? Let us know your thoughts on this issue by leaving us a comment below.

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