Google’s right to be forgotten – industrial scale misinformation?

By EDRi · June 9, 2014

When the European Court ruled on the Google Spain case, the press leaped on the decision as an example of the “right to be forgotten”. The Guardian explained that Google would “have to delete links to two pages on La Vanguardia’s website” and that “[l]egal experts said the ruling could give the go-ahead to deletion requests of material”. Similarly, the BBC explained that “the European Union Court of Justice said links to ‘irrelevant’ and outdated data should be erased on request.” This shocking story spread around the world at an impressive speed, the only problem was that the story, while shocking was also not true.


In reality, as the Court explained in its press release [PDF] and no less than fifteen times in its ruling, that it was restricting itself only to instances where searches were being done on the basis of the complainant’s name. At no stage is deletion of content suggested by the Court. The Court ruled that Google should rectify situations where searching for an individual’s name produces results that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive”. The Court pointed to Google’s assertion that removing pages from its index would be disproportionate and neither implicitly nor explicitly contradicted this view.

The incorrect press analysis appears to have been at least partly fuelled by Google. The BBC reported that the company indicated that it would “remove search results about individuals that were ‘irrelevant’ or out of date”. This analysis was repeated by numerous press outlets. The Telegraph reported on the story under the headline “Google must delete your data if you ask, EU rules” and, separately that Google was receiving one request every seven seconds to “suppress information”. Bloomberg reported (embedded in a Telegraph article) that people can “ask Google to remove some sensitive information from internet search results”. Data could, their invited expert added, “be erased from the interwebs forever”, with Google “purging data from their systems”.

Oddly, there are very few direct quotations from Google on the topic. Reuters limited itself to quoting unnamed “sources” in the company and reported that Jeffrey Rosen from George Washington University was asked by Google to speak to reporters, even though he has no formal link to Google. Another academic, working with but not directly for, Google, Luciano Floridi, explained that “era of freely available information is now over in Europe.” How one could possibly glean this conclusion from the ruling is not explained.

In short, Google’s own interactions with the press apparently have a “right to be forgotten”. Visible traces are few and far between.

In short, Google’s own interactions with the press apparently have a “right to be forgotten”. Visible traces are few and far between.

There is an important point to be addressed as to the wisdom of the Court to leave it entirely in Google’s hands to decide what complaints should be upheld and which should not. Nonetheless, Google is not deleting data. Google has not been asked to delete data. The websites in question remain findable in Google. On the other hand, Google deletes hundreds of millions of search results globally on the basis of US law and has an agreement with the White House to take punitive action globally, outside the rule of law, against online services suspected of breaching US intellectual property law. It also has ad hoc arrangements on a national level to remove search results without any judicial oversight. Oddly, these activities have never received this level of press attention.

Pages will not be removed as a result of this ruling. This ruling does not create a right to be forgotten. Nothing has been forgotten except the truth – the one thing that nobody has the right to forget.