Legal eagles want dirt on Google's 'right to be forgotten' decisions

Wig-wearing sorts pester the Chocolate Factory for juicy insider info

80 legal experts have sent Google a to-do list on the first birthday of the so-called right to be forgotten.

A year ago this week, the European Court of Justice ruled that a Spanish national could force the search giant to remove links to outdated and irrelevant information about him – in his case a notice about an old mortgage foreclosure. The information itself is accurate and thus the newspaper site publishing it was not required to take action, but in a ruling that clearly positions search engines as the gatekeepers of the internet, the ECJ decided that links to the notice should not appear in search results for the man’s name.

Despite much hoo-ha at the time, such a “right to be forgotten” was already enshrined in the 2002 ePrivacy Directive. But the court ruling prompted thousands of Europeans to pester the internet monster to remove links. Since then Google has handled nearly a quarter of a million requests.

The 80 experts – most of them law professors – who have written an open letter to Google say the company is not being transparent enough in how it handles requests. With the company in effect now judge, jury and executioner, they want to see more evidence about how Google reaches its decisions. Google has removed links in just over 40% of cases.

“We believe the public should be able to find out how digital platforms exercise their tremendous power over readily accessible information,” says the letter signed by Ellen P Goodman (Rutgers University School of Law), Paul Bernal (UEA School of Law), Ian Brown (Oxford Internet Institute), Lilian Edwards (University of Strathclyde) and Woodrow Hartzog (Stanford Law School, Center for Internet & Society), among others.

Google has published what it calls a “transparency report”, but as the academics point out: “Beyond anecdote, we know very little about what kind and quantity of information is being delisted from search results, what sources are being delisted and on what scale, what kinds of requests fail and in what proportion, and what are Google’s guidelines in striking the balance between individual privacy and freedom of expression interests.”

The letter lists 13 points where the Chocolate Factory could improve: including defining categories such as past crimes or sex life where requests have been sought; reasons for denial of delisting, including those on multiple grounds; types of public figures denied delisting, including whether a Wikipedia presence is being used as a general proxy for status as a public figure; and specification of the types of webmasters that are not notified by default (e.g. malicious porn sites).

One signatory, Shane McNamee a consumer law expert at University of Bayreuth, told El Reg that the letter should not be taken as an "endorsement" of the right to be forgotten principle. “You work with the right to be forgotten you have, not the one you wish you had,” he said, adding that the underlying point the professors are trying to make is that there must be more transparency.

Google had yet to respond at the time of publication. ®

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