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The right to be forgotten

Does the internet ever forget? Based on EU rulings, it does. “The right to be forgotten” means that internet users can currently request that Google, the worlds most popular search engine, remove links to embarrassing or incriminating content from their search results.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that links that are “inadequate” or “no longer relevant” should not appear when a specific search (usually a person’s name) is conducted.

When information is “forgotten” the offending material does stay online. Though links are removed from Google, the information can still be seen by anyone who has access to the URL through other means.

One of the earliest cases claiming this right was that of convicted murderer Wolfgang Werle, who sued Wikipedia in order to have his name removed from the article about his victim citing legal precedent that a criminal’s name should not be used in news reports after he has served his sentence. His name was originally taken off the article but has since been added back.

More recently in the EU, a Spanish man sued Google in order to have them remove links to an article about the auction of his foreclosed home in 1998. This case resulting in a ruling stating Google was subject to EU privacy laws and should comply with requests to have links removed.

However, Google can refuse requests where they feel the damage to the individual is less than the amount of public interest in the article.

On the first day the ruling was in effect Google received 12,000 request to have links removed. As of October 10th that number had grown to 144,954 requests involving 497,695 URLs. Google reports, of those requested only 42% have been approved for removal. 

Some requests have been controversial; a politician tried to remove information about past indiscretions, and a paedophile requested information about his crimes be taken down.

Many times the lawsuit requesting privacy brings a surge of attention to the individual and whatever they were seeking to remove from the internet. This is known as the Streisand effect, where an attempt to hide or censor information actually increases public awareness of that information.

News outlets have began protesting the reading as a form of censorship. The BBC has a constantly growing list of articles that Google has removed links to.

Google itself is considering adding a notification to users when a search returns links it has been forced to remove, similar to the notification displayed when search results have been removed due to copyright claims.

Kate Wilkinson

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