Academics Take Aim at Google Over 'Right-To-Be-Forgotten'
The pressure is continuing to mount on Google over how it handles European "right to be forgotten" (RTBF) requests. This time the criticism is coming from academia. A group of 80 leading academics from the United States and Europe this week wrote an open letter to the search giant demanding greater transparency.
In their open letter, the academics state that the public should be better informed about how much and what kind of information is being removed from search results, as well as the sources being delisted, which requests fail and in what proportion, and what Google’s guidelines are in terms of striking the balance between individual privacy and freedom of expression.
"The vast majority of these decisions face no public scrutiny, though they shape public discourse," according to the letter. "What’s more, the values at work in this process will/should inform information policy around the world. A fact-free debate about the right to be forgotten is in no one’s interest."
Not a Monster
This week marks one year since the European Court of Justice ruled that Internet search engines must remove information deemed "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive" from their search results. Since then, Google said it has processed 253,617 requests to remove 920,258 links, and approved just over 40 percent of those requests. On Wednesday, the British Information Commissioner's Office said it was discussing 48 right to be forgotten cases in which it wanted Google to revise its decisions.
We reached out to Steve Wilson, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, who told us the way Google behaves going forward could alleviate anxiety over the issue.
"Reasonable people can disagree about how much of the RTBF arbitration process should fall on the search engine companies, but [Google is] not turning out to be the monster people feared at first," Wilson said. "I feared that Google would continue to fight RTBF but it has been more conciliatory. I'm glad Google seems happy now to be playing a role in managing the unintended consequences of Web search."
A Look at the Process
The academics acknowledge some push-and-pull between transparency and the privacy protection that right to be forgotten is meant to promote. Nevertheless, they claim the aggregate information they want to see published threatens privacy less than the edited version that Google has already released.
Responding to the letter, Google said that it would consider the ideas put forward and consider whether they work within "the various constraints within which we have to work -- operationally and from a data protection standpoint."
Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel, explained the company’s decision-making process at a recent data-privacy conference in Berlin. Requests are submitted via a Web form and sent directly to a team of lawyers, paralegals and engineers in Google’s Dublin offices who "decide the easy cases," he said. Most of these simple ones, involving minor cases such as misdemeanor arrests, are removed. The harder cases go to a senior Google panel, which discusses each one and then votes on whether or not to remove the link.
"Search is so important to Google," said Wilson. "It's core to their machine learning mission. They're devoting huge R&D funds to this. I expect they'll figure out how to automate the majority of delisting requests."
Image credit: Google; Artist's concept.
Posted: 2015-05-27 @ 10:40pm PT
Of course the target is Google, as it is the biggest and most beautiful. But what exactly is different in the right-to-be-forgotten executed by Google, or executed by some of the several minor players?
Privacy wise nothing, but then again, the battle against Google seems not to be about privacy, but being dominant in the markets and having the possibility to take advantage of that. But isn't taking advantage of market share the obvious outcome of being big? All the big companies do that.
At least Google is very transparent about what search results are displayed, and how they are used in other apps, maps, etc. When can we expect this from the niche players in the search engine markets?