Google has been under a ton of pressure, both in the European Union and in the United States, to do more for user privacy. One of the biggest changes pushed by the EU back in 2014, the “Right to Be Forgotten” act, basically mandated that Google remove any old or irrelevant links that individual users request for removal (pending approval). Now, it appears that the Right to Be Forgotten rules are growing larger and more complex, and Google is taking an active role in their development.
What does this mean for Google? What effects will it have for the future of search?
The specifics of the Right to Be Forgotten Act are more complicated than my initial, brief explanation, and it’s important to understand them before I dig any deeper into more recent developments. The original guidelines in the EU give all EU citizens the right to request a link to be removed from Google’s massive web index. This functions similarly to Google’s DMCA requests, which are used for copyright holders to request the removal of infringing material.
(Image Source: SearchEngineLand)
However, there is no guarantee that Google will honor this request if the link is deemed relevant to search user interests. The only links required to be removed are ones that are out of date or no longer relevant to the public interest, which is a painfully ambiguous term. As a quick example, let’s say when you were a kid, you started up a personal blog in which you complained about school and expressed your angst with reckless abandon. Somehow, you found yourself unable to take this site down, and now, 20 years later, that blog is still showing for anybody who searches your name. Since this information is old, and isn’t inherently tied to the public interest, it would seem fair for Google to remove the link from its index to reduce its visibility.
If Google rejects the request, it can be appealed. If the link is removed, the content is still available online—it’s just significantly more difficult to find. It may also appear on another site, complicating the process. Right to Be Forgotten isn’t a perfect system, but it’s what we have.
Various alternative forms of “right to be forgotten” are starting to emerge in the United States, as well. For example, California passed a recent law known as the “eraser button,” which demands similar functionality (going a step further to demand the full removal of certain content from the web), and Illinois and New Jersey are working on similar laws. A federal version of the legislation is also underway.
This falls in line with the general attitude of the times: a demand for greater responsibility from tech giants. Google is also under heavy scrutiny for alleged antitrust violations, originally in the EU exclusively, and now in the United States as well.
Back in 2014, Google was resistant to Right to Be Forgotten legislation, claiming it to be a form of censoring the Internet and a violation of user rights. Now, Google is inching closer to a more comprehensive application of those laws.
Under the old policy, “forgotten” links would only be removed from versions of the search engine for other countries—Google.com.uk, for example. A user with the right incentive could simply access the United States’ version of Google to find the links that have been removed. Now, Google has implemented functionality to prevent this breach; all link removal requests are based on the origin of search, so any user in the UK will not be able to find forgotten links, no matter which version of the search engine they use. Speculation suggests that Google made this change under pressure from European authorities.
Frankly, the speculation rings of truth to me. I suspect that Google won’t take any moves to remove content from users’ reach until it is forced to (or pressured to) by international government bodies. This move, while small, is a concession the search giant is willing to give in order to remain in good standing on the international scene.
The company isn’t known for buckling in response to requests; for example, when Spain passed a law that would require the company to pay a kind of tax to writers of articles that showed up in Google News, Google responded by pulling Google News from Spain entirely.
(Image Source: Arts Technica)
With Google more or less tacitly accepting these new demands for indexation rules, does this mean that Google is liable to respond passively to such requests in the future? This remains to be seen. It depends on how much pressure is put on the company by international organizations, and how important the issue is to Google. For example, removing a link to a half-assed personal blog from 20 years ago doesn’t carry the same consequences as censoring information available to an entire country about that country’s government.
My guess is, lawmakers in the United States and overseas will gradually work to introduce new, better regulations to encourage user privacy and Google, as long as these demands are reasonable, will comply. Overall, this will have a minimal effect on the way we use search engines, but it shows that we’re entering an era of greater responsibility and accountability for tech giants.