Well done, Google: Company’s new stats give good insight into “right to be forgotten” complexity

When Google first started de-linking certain content from its European search results, in the wake of a privacy ruling by the EU’s top court, the casual observer would have been forgiven for thinking that the only people applying for this de-linking were pedophiles and crooked politicians. It was almost as if Google was pushing cherry-picked examples of ludicrous requests into the public eye, in an attempt to prove the system was unworkable — indeed, the European Commission accused it of doing just that.

But things have moved on. [company]Google[/company] chairman Eric Schmidt has assembled a suitably varied panel of expert advisors to help the company cope with the ruling, which says people have the right to ask search engines to de-link information about them that’s out-of-date and unwelcome, unless there’s a good public-interest reason for not doing so (this is more a “right to be de-linked” than a “right to be forgotten,” but the latter term has gained such currency that it’s tricky to avoid). And Google appears to have taken to heart the criticism over its approach.

On Thursday, the company released a new European transparency report that indicated, on a country-by-country basis, how many requests for de-linking it has received and how many URLs it subsequently de-listed. So, for example, we now know that Google found three quarters of the Italian requests unconvincing, but it agreed to just over half the requests from Germany and France (the two biggest request sources).

We also now know that the top domains for de-listing belong to [company]Facebook[/company], a service called [company]ProfileEngine.com[/company], [company]YouTube[/company] and [company]Badoo[/company]. However, I find the examples of de-listing requests, and the actions Google subsequently took, to be the most illuminating information on the page.

Here’s a selection:

  • “An individual asked us to remove links to articles on the internet that reference his dismissal for sexual crimes committed on the job. We did not remove the pages from search results.” (U.K.)
  • “A victim of rape asked us to remove a link to a newspaper article about the crime. The page has been removed from search results for the individual’s name.” (Germany)
  • “A financial professional asked us to remove more than 10 links to pages reporting on his arrest and conviction for financial crimes. We did not remove the pages from search results.” (Switzerland)
  • “A woman requested that we remove a decades-old article about her husband’s murder, which included her name. The page has been removed from search results for her name.” (Italy)
  • “A doctor requested we remove more than 50 links to newspaper articles about a botched procedure. Three pages that contained personal information about the doctor but did not mention the procedure have been removed from search results for his name. The rest of the links to reports on the incident remain in search results.” (U.K.)
  • “An individual requested that we remove close to 50 links to articles about an embarrassing private exchange that became public. The pages have been removed from search results for his name.” (Germany)

A few months back, I was annoyed about Google not being sufficiently transparent about its deliberation process. This is precisely the sort of thing – informative but not overly specific – that helps everyone see what’s actually going on.

That’s not to say Google is getting it right in each and every case (a recent New York Times report suggests it is not), but it does show that Google is now acting more in good faith, in the way it’s presenting the ruling’s implications. More importantly, this information demonstrates the complexity of the situation.

Why should the widow of a murder victim have that fact come up as the top result when someone searches for her name, decades later? Why should someone’s embarrassing personal exchange be etched in virtual stone for all eternity, in a way that would never have occurred before the internet? And how on earth do some of these jokers think it’s not in the public interest to maintain records of past crimes that remain relevant today?

Many of these points remain debatable, particularly for those watching the process from the U.S., which gives overriding weight to free speech in a way that the EU does not (European law also provides a strong right to free speech, but it generally sees privacy as an equally weighty right). And the fact remains, in my opinion, that a private-sector company such as Google should not be put in the position of adjudicating censorship decisions.

However, seeing as that’s how things are right now, Google is doing a much better job than it was of educating the public about what’s going on. And for that, it should be commended.