Remembering the Lessons of Right to be Forgotten — A Ruling for Crooks, Felons, and Malpractitioners

Last month, Google released an updated transparency report on the impact of the EU’s notorious “Right to be Forgotten” (RTBF) ruling made almost four years ago. This controversial policy requires Google to take down search results when EU citizens demand it. While these requests for censoring must meet a set of criteria, we’ve seen these requests abused resulting in suppression of valuable information.

While sympathetic to the desire to obscure embarrassing information about oneself, we should not support polices that undermine free speech, public wellbeing, and the free flow of information.

The nearly four-year-old ruling has opened the door for mass censorship. Since it took effect in 2014, 2.4 million web links were requested for removal from Google’s search results.

While advocates for RTBF may point to these statistics as proof of its success, analysis of what was censored raises concerns.

Consider the links submitted for removal in the first couple of months of RTBF operation in the UK and Ireland. Of the total removal requests made, 31% were related to frauds and scams, 20% were violent or serious crime arrests, and 12% were child pornography arrests.

Or that over the almost four years of requests, 20% of links requested for removal were to news and government websites. These deletions aren’t embarrassing blog posts made in teenage years — they’re valid sites of public interest that often reference someone’s legal history.

While one may not want anyone to discover that they were charged with a serious crime, that embarrassment doesn’t trump the public’s right to know.

RTBF’s detrimental impact on free speech must also be taken into account.

Is it really right that information about someone, be it an old social media profile or a history of criminal activity, be concealed from public view just because the person it references wishes it so? Should truthful stories be suppressed just because the person they’re about doesn’t like them? Or should we protect free speech?

We’ve also seen businesses and companies abuse RTBF to suppress negative reviews. In fact, Google reported that hundreds of removal requests came from client reputation management services. Using RTBF to suppress their bad reviews and down-votes, malpractitioners can better scam unwitting new customers.

After several years of experimentation with RTBF, it’s clear this is not the right approach.

Despite RTBF’s availability, many in the EU still have embarrassing content online. It’s possible even, that RTBF has discouraged the “think before you post approach to online integrations.”

As a culture, we are only getting used to the permanence of data uploaded to the internet — and we should absolutely consider changes to our behavior that make us question when it’s appropriate to click “post.That’s a problem legislation, whether from the court or lawmakers, can’t solve, especially when it could end up hiding information that really shouldn’t be forgotten.