Google has taken a big step forward in complying with the European Union’s new “Right To Be Forgotten” that was established after a court ruling earlier this month.
The company has created a new form allowing those in the EU to request takedown of URLs they dislike. Removals will only happen for EU-versions of Google, and there will be disclosure in Google’s results when listings are dropped.
You’ll find the new form here. It requires people to select one of the 28 European Union countries plus provides support for four non-EU countries: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. I’m checking with Google on why the other four were added; likely there’s some legal reasoning because these countries are often closely aligned in trade and other agreements with the EU.
The form allows an individual or someone representing an individual to put in a request. The form requires submission of a photo ID of the individual the request is for. So even if a third-party is doing the submission for someone else, they need that person’s photo ID as a way to prove they have some type of approval by them.
The form allows people to list the name that they want results removed for, but only one name. In other words, if you were known as both “Larry Page” and “Lawrence Page,” the form requires that you pick one of those names. You can’t indicate both. Presumably, you could resubmit the same information for other name variations.
The form then allows people to list one or more URLs they want removed, and they have to provide an explanation about why they want them dropped. In particular, you have to explain why each URL is “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate,” wording that goes back to the original court ruling about why material can be removed.
At the moment, once a form is submitted, it goes into a holding queue. Here’s the response that Google sends out:
Thanks for reaching out to us!
We have received your legal request. We are currently building our system for removing links from our search results according to EU data protection law. In the meantime, your message is in our queue. Once we have our system up and running, we’ll process your request as quickly as our workload permits.
Regards, The Google Team
A trusted source familiar with Google’s plans tells Search Engine Land that in the near future, those requests be reviewed by people who are part of Google’s removal team. The timeframe isn’t set. Removals could happen in a matter of days, though they might not start for weeks.
Will everything get removed? No, according to our source — but requests that are complete and make a reasonable explanation of why a listing is irrelevant, outdated or inappropriate in that person’s view should have a good chance of being removed.
Google has already received thousands of requests, it has acknowledged, even before this form has gone up. Our source says that most of these are unlikely to be approved, as they won’t have met the formalized criteria that the form requires, such as ID. But, those people can resubmit using the now formal process.
Overall, each removal will be examined on a case-by-case basis. In the case of rejection, people will be notified and told they can appeal to their country’s data protection agency.
Google itself tells Search Engine Land that removals won’t pull a URL out of Google worldwide. Instead, if a removal is approved, the URL will be dropped for searches on the associated name from all the EU-specific versions of Google that the company maintains.
For example, say someone from the United Kingdom puts in a request that’s approved. The URL will be dropped out of Google UK, in that person’s home country. But it will also be dropped out of Google France, Google Germany, Google Spain and other versions of Google for individual EU countries.
In contrast, the URL would not be dropped from Google.com. Anyone going to Google.com, whether in the US or EU, will still see the URLs. Removals will only be done from the EU versions.
Also, it seems likely that those going to particular EU versions from outside the EU would still see the URLs. For example, if you were in the US and went to Google UK, in the scenario above, you might still see the URLs. I’m double-checking on this.
Currently, when Google censors its listings, it shows a little notice at the bottom of its results. Here’s an example of how that looks for a copyright removal action in the US:
Google tells us that will show disclosure when URLs are removed under the new Right To Be Forgotten method in a manner similar to above. In other words, while the URL itself is forgotten, the fact that Google was made to forget it will be remembered.
To be very clear about this: if someone asks for a URL to be removed from the listings for their name, and that’s approved, the URL will go away — but anyone who looks at the bottom of the result will know that they must have asked for something to be removed.
It’s also likely that Google will provide a link to ChillingEffects.org, as it does with many other types of censorship requests, where people can learn more about what is removed. Names wouldn’t be revealed, though those can be deducted from the search. The URLs taken-down probably wouldn’t be revealed. But it’s possible there would be some general explanation about what was removed or maybe why something was removed.
That will be interesting to see how it plays out. Someone who has, for example, a URL about a child pornography conviction removed might find that the disclosure could lead to something that says there was a removal relating to a legal conviction. People might not be able to tell what the conviction was specifically, nor as easily find details about it, but they’d know something happened. The Right To Be Forgotten might be more like The Right For Fuzzy Memory.
Google’s form also notes that publishers may be informed if a URL is removed from its results, plus local data protection authorities may also get this information.
Soon after the court ruling happened, people began making requests to Google, then some of those requests leaked out.
A politician who behaved badly, a business with bad reviews, someone convicted of having child pornography were some of the requests, as we covered in our earlier story:
Since then, as said earlier, the requests have continued to flow-in. Google shared some fresh stats on these to the Financial Times, as part of a long interview (which you should read) with Google CEO Larry Page on Google complying with the ruling. Google said we could cite the stats as well:
Of the requests made to have material removed from Google UK and Google Ireland, the leading reason is to have material about a fraud or scam incident dropped, followed by URLs for arrests for violent or serious crime, followed by child pornography arrests:
Those stats are probably a pretty good indicator of what’s likely to follow, though now that a form is available, perhaps more mundane things like embarrassing pictures or blog posts might get requested more often for removal.
Also of interest are the countries making the request removals. Germany is by far the request removal leader. You might think that’s just because it has the EU’s biggest population. But France, which has nearly as many people as Germany, makes up only a tiny percentage of the requests:
As said, requests will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and it seems things that are deemed reasonable, especially from private individuals, will get dropped. Here’s Google’s official statement on the matter:
To comply with the recent European court ruling, we’ve made a webform available for Europeans to request the removal of results from our search engine. The court’s ruling requires Google to make difficult judgments about an individual’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to know. We’re creating an expert advisory committee to take a thorough look at these issues. We’ll also be working with data protection authorities and others as we implement this ruling.
I bolded a key part, that Google has created an advisory group that will be reviewing the process. This group, according to Google, includes:
It’s important to note that removals will happen ahead of this advisory group making any decisions, according to our source. The removal process isn’t waiting for this group to meet and establish some criteria about what types of material can be removed.
Instead, this group will be assessing the process after it is already underway. Presumably, it may alter the process or better define it, after many requests have already been processed. It’s unclear if revisions might cause material previously removed to be restored to Google’s search listings, but that seems unlikely.
The EU ruling isn’t just a Google-specific thing. Any search engine with a “presence” in the EU that can be defined by things such as having local sales offices must comply. That includes both Yahoo and Bing.
Yahoo says it’s developing its own solution, telling us:
In light of the European Court of Justice decision, our team is currently in the process of developing a solution for Yahoo users in Europe that we believe balances the important privacy and freedom of expression interests.
As for Bing, it doesn’t appear to be taking any action to comply at all, from its statement:
Given the complexity of the ruling and the questions that remain about how it will implemented, it’s really too early to speculate on its impact on Google or anyone else for that matter. We remain hopeful that the courts and data protection authorities will strike the right balance between protecting privacy rights and the freedom of expression.
Ultimately, Bing will likely have to come up with a solution for two reasons: it’ll be legally required to and because since Yahoo uses Bing’s search results, Yahoo will need Bing to help it develop its own solution.
Both companies were also asked if they’ve had any requests received so far; neither answered that question.
Postscript: This story was updated about 12 hours after it was first posted to include statements from Yahoo and Bing.
Postscript 2: Google has released some basic stats on how the first day has gone: Google’s Right To Be Forgotten Form Gets 12,000 Submissions On First Day.