Courts in the European Union reached a landmark decision last month, deciding that people have a “right to be forgotten” on the Internet. That’s an idea that took almost everyone by surprise, including search engines like Google and Bing, technologists and even lawyers specializing in information and technology. But what does it mean?
It means that people in 32 countries (the 28 EU countries and four others closely aligned with them) now have legal grounds to make embarrassing, inaccurate or outdated information harder to find online.
So far, Google is the only major search engine that has responded to the new law—and it seems to have made a real effort to comply. Its Right To Be Forgotten web form launched May 30, making it quite easy for EU residents and others to request that their information be “forgotten.”
But the process comes with many caveats. Here’s how it works:
- To request a page be forgotten, you must be either a resident of one of the 32 countries, a company based there, or an individual or company with strong ties there. In general, the ruling and the new form don’t apply to anyone outside of those countries.
- To make a request, you (or your lawyer or representative) must provide photo ID. This is to prevent unauthorized requests.
- The website(s) you want forgotten must be either “outdated, inappropriate or irrelevant” to searches for your name. Google will review each request and can deny requests that don’t fit the criterion (although these decisions can be appealed).
- Even if Google approves the request, it doesn’t make the website go away. It just means people searching for your name won’t find it in Google results. They could find it by other means.
- Not all Google searches are affected, only searches from the country-specific Google sites like Google.co.uk. That means Europeans can go out of their way to use Google.com and still see all the “forgotten” results. The rest of the world can see them, too.
- Lastly, even on the country-specific search results, Google will disclose that a result was “forgotten,” and may provide information as to why.
Given all those rules and conditions, the EU court decision seems to have built a very complex set of requirements to offer only minimal protection against unfriendly search results. A casual search from some countries will miss the “forgotten” sites, but anyone who does a little digging—or even just notices the disclosure—will know something is missing and can probably still find it.
Artificially removing information from search results is not a popular concept in the United States, where most Internet users believe “information wants to be free.” Here we let relevancy and popularity determine which information is most prominent. Is that a perfect solution? No, but it does provide a level playing field where anyone with valuable content can get a share of the spotlight. The EU may prefer the nominal protection provided by a filtered Internet, but as long as other parts of the world remain uncensored, Europeans may find that information is very, very hard to “forget.”