The right to erase our online past?

clear-historyIt’s something we’ve all had to learn (and some the hard way), that the presence of the internet over the last 20 years has meant that we all leave a digital footprint.  

A footprint that shows the social side - Facebook posts, cheeky tweets, old school photos, tags in photos we’d rather forget… – as well as the professional business side. It’s a given these days that recruitment agencies or prospective employers search your social media accounts for signs that your digital profile matches up to what’s on your CV.

But the digital footprint could have a rockier foundation than we once thought. 

‘Forgetting’ our online history

Google has announced that it’s considering inserting an alert message into the bottom of its results pages. This is to highlight the fact that links have been removed after the recent landmark EU privacy ruling, dubbed the ‘right to be forgotten’.

As the web’s dominant search engine, billion dollar company, Google, plans to flag up the search results it has censored following a controversial court ruling made on 13th May this year. This ruling gives European citizens the right to demand that parts of their online history be erased.

Authorised by Europe’s highest court, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, we now all have the power to ask that links to "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" material are taken off web search results. It’s important to note, though, that the information will still be available on the original web page (so not a total clean slate, then).

Unsurprisingly, since that decision was announced by the ECJ, Google has been suffering from a deluge of tens of thousands of requests for sensitive information to be removed on individual web users. 

As of mid June, the number of requests that Google had received was just under 50,000. Nearly a third of those asking for material to be removed related to a fraud or scram, one fifth concerned serious crime, and a tenth are connected to child pornography arrests.

How will the alerts work?

Similar to the way in which internet users are alerted about takedown requests over copyright infringement, Google plans to flag up the censored results following this privacy ruling.

For example, a Google search for "Adele MP3" shows that it has removed a number of results from that page after receiving complaints under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Every six months, Google publishes a transparency report which reveals the number of government requests globally it has received to remove material from search results. It is likely that the ‘right to be forgotten’ requests will now be included in that report. 

To comply or not to comply…

Crucially, it seems, Google doesn’t actually have to comply with every request. If you want some part of your online history wiped from search results, then it’s a straightforward process to make your plea – just fill in the form which was launched online at the end of May. But there’s no guarantee it will be removed –the public interest has to be taken into consideration.

And that ‘in the public interest’ line is a controversial one too. Google has set up an advisory committee, made up of seven people including its executive chairman, to issue recommendations on where the boundaries of the public interest lie.

It seems that not everyone is happy with the ECJ ruling. Calls of ‘censorship’ have been made, one that raises the concern that any news organisation will be badly hit as Google is the main primary source through which web users find information. 

Jodie Ginsberg, who is the CEO of Index on Censorship, has said "We remain deeply concerned about a ruling that opens the door to a censoring of the past without any proper checks and balances."

The right to be forgotten?

But we should remember that the Luxembourg ruling only applies to EU member states - even if you’re successful in having your personal data removed from Google’s search results within the EU, it will still appear in search results outside of those geographical boundaries.

And in a weird paradox – if you assert your right to be forgotten, aren’t you reminding us all of the very information you want to be forgotten?