Google rolls out tool to request removal of personal info from search results, will later add proactive alerts

This spring, Google announced it would expand the types of personal information users could request to have removed from Google Search results to include contact information, like a phone number, address or email. At Google’s “Search On” event today, where the company unveiled a number of announcements related to its Search products and services, it said this feature would now be rolling out widely to users in the U.S. and would later expand to include alerts.

Originally, Google had said the feature would arrive in the Google App in the “coming months” without giving an exact launch date. Today, Google says the “Results About You” tool will become accessible to all English language users in the U.S. within the next few weeks. It will also introduce a new feature, yet unreported, that will allow users to receive proactive alerts about their contact information appearing in Search results.

When available, users will be able to find the tool in the Google App or by clicking on the three dots next to an individual Google Search result.

Of course, a few users already discovered a partial launch of feature in earlier phases of this rollout. Last week, for example, some people reported already seeing the “Results About You” option appear in the Google app for Android.

Image Credits: Google

When making a request, you can ask Google to remove a result because it shows your personal contact information, because it shows your contact information with an intent to harm you, because it shows other personal information, because it contains illegal information, or because the information is outdated.

After making a removal request, you can also follow its progress in the app where you can filter between the requests being processed and those that have been approved.

The new alerting feature, meanwhile, won’t arrive until early next year. However, when available, users will be able to receive notifications about new Google Search results that contain their contact information so they can quickly act to request its removal, if they choose.

The service arrives at a time when there’s been much discussion about the threats associated with doxing — a way to threaten or harass someone by revealing their personal information to the public without their permission. This is often done to silence someone because of their beliefs or opinions, and is considered a form of cyberbullying. But unlike traditional online trolling, where bad actors can simply be blocked and reported, doxing can invite real-world harm as people’s home addresses and contact information is exposed.

Image Credits: Google

A 2017 Pew Internet study indicated there’s been a slight increase in online harassment, including doxing, since its prior analysis in 2014, with some 41% of U.S. adults experiencing harassment, it said. That number has stayed consistent over the years, as Pew noted last January that roughly four in ten Americans continue to experience online harassment, with many citing politics or religion as the reason why they were targeted. (Doxing-related harassment would represent a subset of these numbers, we should note.)

In recent years, online platforms have taken stronger positions on doxing, with Reddit enacting subreddit bans over the practice, and YouTube in 2019 releasing an updated harassment policy that took a stronger stance on threats and personal attacks, including those associated with doxing. This year, Meta’s Oversight Board also pushed the company to tighten its rules around doxing, noting the practice disproportionately affects groups such as women, children and LGBTQIA+ people. Meta later updated its policy as a result of that guidance.

Image Credits: Google

Prior to the launch of “Results About You,” Google offered other removal options that would allow users whose banking and credit card details had been published online. It also allowed people under 18 or their parents to request to delete their photos from search results and had protections that allowed users to request nonconsensual explicit imagery (aka “revenge porn”) to be taken down. And in Europe, Google has to comply with local laws around takedown requests related to the “right to be forgotten.”

This change isn’t the U.S. equivalent of that, however, Google notes.

“Even though removing these results doesn’t scrub your contact information from the web overall, we’re doing everything we can to safeguard your information on Google Search,” said Danny Sullivan, Google’s public liaison for Search.

“That’s why we’re also making it easier for you to keep tabs on new results about you. We know that keeping track of your personal information online can sometimes feel like a game of whack-a-mole, so starting early next year, you’ll be able to opt into alerts if new results with your contact information appear so you can quickly request their removal. That way, you can have peace of mind that we’re helping your personal information stay personal,” he added.

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