It could be embarrassing photos of a wild night you’d rather forget or an impassioned comment that was written in the heat of the moment – most people have left traces on the internet that they wish they could delete. Often the data is simply irrelevant or embarrassing, but in some cases, these traces could prove potentially damaging. For example, information about debts or legal disputes – even if false – could prevent somebody from moving on in their career or finding a place to live. The internet forgets nothing. But now it is possible to take control of this situation; since 2014, the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ legislation has allowed internet users in the European Union to delete Google pages that are no longer relevant.
The right to be forgotten, which was introduced by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxemburg in May 2014, states that search engines like Google must delete pages upon request if they contain sensitive personal data, false or libellous information, or if they are no longer relevant. The public should also not be permitted access to personal information about public figures or serious crimes. Since this ruling, Google has removed hundreds of thousands of search results upon request.
Note: This law does not mean that it is possible to wipe all incriminating evidence from the internet. This law only goes so far as to delete search results, not entire pages. The information itself is therefore still on the internet, it’s just not so easy to find.
Case study: a war against Google
One of the triggers for this development came from the case of Mario Costeja González, who had found a list published in 1998 by the La Vanguardia newspaper on which his name appeared. On the list were houses that were to be repossessed, and Costeja was co-owner of one of the properties. An alleged debt in social insurance was the reason given for the repossession.
After both Google and La Vanguardia had refused to delete the link to the website and the list, Costeja complained to the Spanish data protection agency (Aepd). This agency demanded that Google delete the links to the onerous results concerning Costeja, since he had repaid his debts long ago and the release of this information had caused damage to Costeja’s career. However, the search engine refused and the case was taken to the Court of Justice, who eventually ruled in Costeja’s favor.
The difficulties of enforcing the right to be forgotten on an international scale
Costeja’s victory was welcomed by a large portion of the online community. But there was a big catch: this ruling only affects countries within the European Union. Therefore, if you search for Mario Costeja González’s name using Google.com – or any other non-European search engine page, for that matter – it’s still possible to find a link to the original La Vanguardia article.
Google has since expanded its policy on deleting results: As of March 2016, search results are also deleted from international versions of Google if the search originates from the country of the person who requested the deletion. This extension is rather minor: it simply means that if someone from Germany, for example, requested to delete personal data from Google’s results pages, a person in France could still access this information using the American site, Google.com.
This ruling is currently being contested, with French data protection authorities arguing that the deletion of personal data should be applied across all Google platforms, as it is still technically accessible. Google has defended its policy, arguing that ‘one nation can’t make the laws for another country’. The court will reach its final decision in 2017.
Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, is also expanding its right to be forgotten policy internationally, along the same guidelines as Google. The search engines both use geographical signals such as IP addresses. Changes also apply to deletion requests that were made in the past.
How it works: deleting personal data from the Google search results
Deleting personal information from Google or Bing search results occurs as follows. (Note: these actions are currently only available for internet users within the European Union.)
- You first need to ascertain what exactly is available in the search engine results pages. You can do this simply by entering your name into the search engine, which, incidentally, is known as egosurfing. You should use an anonymous search engine like webjuice.dk in order to prevent Google from adapting the search results to your personal search history. With webjuice, you can also select the location you want to search in, the TLDs you want to search for, and the language of the results.
- Make sure that the data you want to delete is covered by the Right to be Forgotten legislation. The data must be either false, irrelevant (as in the case of Costeja), or hyperbolic. This data should not be of any interest to the public.
- Fill out a request form. You can find this on Google’s support page. For more information on the Right to be Forgotten form, check Google’s FAQs.
- Don’t forget to fill out the Bing request form too – as well as to check which other search engines offer this opportunity. It’s important to actively pursue your applications, as all search engines in the European Union are obliged to grant their users the right to be forgotten.