American law places a premium on freedom of speech and transparency of information when it comes to regulating search engines.
But in the EU, where individual data privacy is more strictly enforced, citizens have what’s called a “right to be forgotten,” which mandates that Google must remove certain search results upon request to wipe them from the digital record.
How to be “forgotten”
The “right to be forgotten” allows Europeans to send requests to Google (and other search engines) to remove certain links that express “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” information about them.
Requests, submitted through an online form, are manually vetted by an “Advisory Council” of professors, lawyers, and government officials selected by Google. Once approved, Google removes the offending search from its results (though the content itself remains online).
Since 2014, Google has received 655k individual requests demanding the removal of more than 2.4m links; some requests are still pending, but 43% (some 901k links) have been approved so far.
Who is requesting these removals?
According to a recent transparency report released by Google, 89% of the requests come from everyday citizens wishing to protect their private information; the other 11% — which is more problematic — include corporations, politicians, and public figures.
In the past 3 years, government officials have sent in requests to “scrub” 34k links from the internet, putting the practice under ethical scrutiny.
Companies have taken full advantage of the “right to be forgotten”: A cottage industry of “reputation consulting firms” has popped up, promising to whitewash corporations’ online standing by filing thousands of link removal requests.
These laws give Google massive ethical power
In considering which requests get granted, Google considers a multitude of factors, including “whether the content relates to the requester’s professional life, a past crime, political office, position in public life, or whether the content is self-authored content… or is journalistic in nature.”
But as NPR notes, what this really means is that a private company has the power to determine what is or isn’t in the “public interest,” which rides a dangerous line between one’s right to privacy and straight-up censorship.