Google published a new transparency report on Monday entitled "Three years of the Right to be Forgotten." The 17-page document analyzes requests European citizens have made to delist URLs under the "Right to be Forgotten" online privacy statute.
Google's transparency report found that from 2014-2017, Europeans requested that Google delist 2.4 million URLs from search, primarily regarding individuals' personal information, or legal history.
In 2014, the European Court of Justice established EU citizens' "right to be forgotten," or, more accurately according to Google, the right to be delisted. Under the ruling, European citizens can petition search engine companies like Google to delist URLs from search results. Per a blog post from Google, individuals can ask search engines to delist a page if it is "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive."
After a petition has been submitted, the search engine companies then decide to comply based on whether the individuals' right to privacy outweighs the public good associated with keeping the URL listing (remember, the site doesn't go away — it just gets delisted from search).
With over 2.4 million delisting requests, in its new report, Google is able to analyze how and why people are utilizing their "right" to be forgotten — and show that the ability is something a significant amount of people really do want.
Also importantly, the nature of the requests and the requesters, and the rate at which Google accepts or denies them, can shed lights on how well Google is carrying out the individual privacy vs. public good directive.
Google, too, was looking to the report to evaluate the efficacy of their processes.
"My biggest concern was are our processes doing the best that we can to respect individuals as well as minimize the impact that that would have to the flow of information," Michee Smith, product lead of the Google Transparency Report said. "I think that our numbers show that. And that's what I'm really proud of."
Smith said that the fact that nearly 90 percent of the requests came from private individuals, not companies or public figures, surprised and pleased her. She thinks that figure demonstrates that Google's processes are serving individuals who wanted the law.
Specifically, the report found that 89 percent of the requests come from individuals. The remaining 11 percent comes from corporate entities, government officials, other public officials, minors, and others. This shows it's not just corporations or public figures using the statute to scrub their online presence, but real people.
But interestingly, just 1,000 of the 400,000 individual requesters are responsible for 15% of all of the 2.4 million petitioned URLs. Many of these "frequent requesters," as the report calls them, "were law firms and reputation management services."
"These results illustrate that while hundreds of thousands of Europeans rely on the RTBF to delist a handful of URLs, there are thousands of entities using the RTBF to alter hundreds of URLs about them or their clients that appears in search results," the report states.
Nearly half of the requested URLs directed to social media websites or directories (sites that contain personal information like emails, phone numbers, addresses, etc.) And over 20 percent of the pages referenced an individual's legal history, in news articles or on government pages.
The latter category is where Google faced the test of how to evaluate privacy needs versus public good. The ability to delist a news article could be a cause for concern, for freedom of information and press advocates. 18 percent of the URLs submitted for delisting were from news organizations.
However, Smith says that the results show that Google was able to maintain this balance.
"I was happy to see that news and government sites were lower," Smith said. "Those are the sensitive things that when you think about the balance between privacy and the freedom of information, you really don't want a lot of news sites being removed from your web search. And to see those numbers be lower really made me feel good about the process that we've put in place to handle these types of requests."
Professional information was the largest target of delisting requests, at 24 percent. The content of other requested pages were pages that were self-authored, or that contained information about professional wrongdoing, politics, and crime. Overall, Google accepted 43 percent of the delisting requests. Which, considering the amount of trolling on the internet, seems a not-too-shabby stat to support the idea that people really are using their Right to be Forgotten in good faith.
"I think the 43 percent number shows that we're being thoughtful," Smith said. "We're not just removing everything that we see."
"It's a work in progress."