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Tech by VICE

The 'Right to Be Forgotten' Might Actually Be Working as Intended

The domains that have seen most URLs removed from search results are social networking sites and directories of contact information.

by Victoria Turk
Oct 13 2014, 4:30pm

Image: Twin Design/Shutterstock

Google's latest transparency report reveals more details about who's asking the search engine to remove personal links following the controversial "right to be forgotten" ruling in Europe, and why. 

The top place from which links are successfully being scrubbed? Facebook. Nearly 500,000 URLs have been evaluated by Google, 42 percent of which have been removed from search results. But the most interesting part of the report hints at why people are keen to have links about them "forgotten."

Judging by the sites that have had most links removed in search results, it seems the right to be forgotten could in fact be working as intended: to guard the rather mundane, day-to-day aspects of people's privacy.

Those who have argued against the right to be forgotten (including Google) often raise censorship concerns—they suggest that the law could ostensibly allow people to strip the internet of unflattering but true information. A few high-profile cases adjourned shortly after the ruling came into effect resulted in the removal of links to newspaper reports that contained information that appeared to be wholly in the public interest. 

But the decision to remove these links was in fact reversed a day later.

Some of the new examples Google gives also show that requests to remove information that is obviously still in the public interest are not successful. An individual requesting links to articles "that reference his dismissal for sexual crimes committed on the job," and a doctor hoping to scrub links to articles about a botched procedure, for instance, were denied. 

It seems that, properly implemented, the right to be forgotten might not be the engine for unbridled censorship that some feared. In fact, the most successful requests suggest that people are predominantly using the mechanism as a much less sinister privacy tool.

In its report, Google lists the top ten sites "most impacted" by requests for the company to remove links from searches for people's names—that is to say, the domains where the most URLs have actually been removed from search results. Facebook takes the top spot with 3,353 URLs removed, with Google-owned YouTube coming in third, and Google Groups fifth.

Image: Google's transparency report

I reached out to Facebook to ask what kind of URLs were being removed but was told the company wasn't commenting on the matter. A Google spokesperson also refused to share any more details.

In a blog post, the company reminds readers that its YouTube and Google Groups platforms both offer options to remove content directly (going through the "right to be forgotten" request only removes the link from search results that include the person's name).

You may not have heard of the remaining domains on the list, but you'll know the type: Most are the kind of sites that do little more than list scraps of personal information gathered elsewhere; registries of names and addresses for anyone to see (often for a small fee). 

Applied to this sort of information, the right to be forgotten mechanism seems a whole lot more mundane. Users requesting removal of these links don't want to bury newspaper articles about high-profile misdemeanours on behalf of the perpetrator; they just want to stop people finding their home address.

At least one of them, UK-based 192.com, has my own details. When I googled "Victoria Turk phone number," it cropped up as the fourth search result. When I googled "Victoria Turk address," it was ninth. I'm only comforted by the fact the details they have for me are several years out of date.

There's no technical reason the site shouldn't have this information—it's pulled from the electoral roll—but I wouldn't choose to reveal my contact details so freely. Judging by the number of 192.com and other similar URLs Google has deleted from search results, many share my reluctance.

While Google's implementation of the "right to be forgotten" ruling may have helped those users retain some control over their personal details, it raises the question as to whether people should have to resort to this tool to do so—and whether Google should be carrying the burden.

Much has been said about Facebook's privacy settings, for instance, but its place at the top of the pile of successful search removal requests suggests people still aren't happy with the information shared about them on the social networking site.

And after searching a bit (on Google, where else?), I found that it is apparently possible to have your information removed from 192.com. According to a form on the site, you have to fill in the addresses you want removed, sign, and fax it back. Google's web form looks more appealing already.