Following a meeting between European regulators and search engines yesterday, to discuss the latter group’s implementation of a recent European Court of Justice privacy ruling, it has emerged that Google has received around 91,000 requests from Europeans to de-index personal information that is outdated or irrelevant, with requests relating to a total of around 328,000 links.
Other information being drip-fed by Google relates to which countries have submitted the most requests. As of the end of last week, France apparently topped the list, with 17,500 requests touching 58,000 URLs; followed by Germany with 16,500 requests (57,000 URLs); the UK with 12,000 requests (44,000 URLs); Spain with 8,000 requests (27,000 URLs); Italy with 7,500 requests (28,000 URLs); and the Netherlands with 5,500 requests (21,000 URLs).
Back in May, Europe’s top court ruled that search engines are data controllers and therefore should have to comply with existing European data protection legislation which affords privacy rights to private individuals.
This ruling has been publicly dubbed a ‘right to be forgotten’, although that’s a misleading descriptor — since the right being afforded is only for private individuals to unlink outdated or irrelevant information from a specific search for their name.
Unsurprisingly Google has been vociferous in its opposite to the ruling (as have free speech advocates) — claiming it amounts to ‘knowledge censorship’. Others have more aptly described the process involved here as ‘information sedimentation’. Writing in the Guardian earlier this week, two academics — one of whom, Luciano Floridi, now sits on an advisory committee convened by Google to publicly examine the issues at hand — captured the nuance of the wider debate thus:
Neither the taxonomy (‘right to be forgotten’) nor the logic (relevance determined by age as justification for support) truly addresses the broader need for information sedimentation – solutions, adapted to the infosphere, that enable us, individually and as a society, to remember without recalling; to live with, but also beyond, experience; to acknowledge without constraining.
Today, episodes of our lives in the infosphere appear as digital traces across sources beyond our control. As those traces grow ever larger and move towards near complete reflection and inspection of our lives, it is important that we reflect carefully on how this information and its sedimentation can be pro-actively and safely managed.
Despite a few more numbers leaking out of Mountain View this week, it’s worth stressing that there continues to be far more unknown knowns about this situation than known knowns — not helped by the regulator discussions taking place behind closed doors.
Google did confirm that it is rejecting around a third of de-indexing requests; that in 15% of cases it has asked for more information; and that just over half of requests are being granted. What it’s not saying is exactly how many requests it has acted upon thus far. So those percentages might be based on taking action in far few cases than the number of requests it’s received. And/or taking action on particular types of cases that could skew the percentages. We just don’t know.
Google is also not saying how it’s making decisions on individual requests. All we know is that it has assembled an unidentified group of non-lawyers (it describes these as “paralegals”) who have been “trained” to deal with requests. But it won’t say how they’ve been trained; what level of legal training they have; or whether these unidentified decision makers are familiar with cases in data protection law from a range of European jurisdictions. Again, that’s an unknown. All we know is that Google has assembled a group of unknown people to somehow judge this stuff.
The meeting held yesterday with European regulators was not about discussing the rights and wrongs of the ruling itself — although there have clearly been attempts to spin it thus. Rather it was about how the ruling is being implemented by search engines — with Google, Bing and Yahoo all in attendance. (Although Google is the biggie here, with a circa 90% share of the search market in Europe.)
Google and Microsoft both declined to comment on the discussion points at the meeting when asked by TechCrunch.
According to the Dutch Data Protection Authority chairman, Jacob Kohnstamm, regulators are keen for all three search companies to be reacting consistently to the ruling, and want them to establish a common policy for assessing removal requests.
Microsoft launched its own search removal request webform for European Bing users last week — which differs in structure to Google’s webform. So, presumably, those sorts of inconsistencies of approach will need to be ironed out.
Reuters reports that the search engines were asked to provide more information on their implementation of the ruling by the end of the month. The news agency’s source said the information will be used to feed a set of guidelines that regulators will draft — possibly by mid-September — to help them deal with complaints when a search engine refuses to remove a link.
On that front, there has not been a flood of complaints yet. This week the UK’s data protection watchdog said it had received 23 complaints from citizens whose de-indexing requests had been refused, for instance.
Other issues that remain unclear include whether the regulators are specifically looking at how to tackle the territoriality question — since Google’s de-indexing is only being applied to its European search engines, meaning that Google.com offers an immediate workaround, thereby undermining the privacy impact of the ruling.
There is also the question of republication. When media outlets have been informed of a link being de-indexed by Google some have published stories detailing the specifics of the request, putting the individual requester’s information back into the public sphere — which clearly has the opposite effect of safeguarding their privacy.
Christopher Graham, the UK’s Information Commissioner waded into the debate about the privacy ruling earlier this week, telling BBC Radio 5’s Wake Up to Money show that Google’s censorship claims are overblown.
“Google is a massive commercial organisation making millions and millions out of processing people’s personal information. They’re going to have to do some tidying up,” he said. “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.”