Crims and politicians using RTBF to scrub themselves from Google? Not quite

Actually just ordinary folk getting some privacy rights

Old Bailey Lady Justice

Ordinary people value their online reputations, and are the main users of the so-called "right to be forgotten" European ruling, Google data has revealed.

Google has portrayed its obligation to follow European privacy law, affirmed by the Gonzalez vs Google Spain ruling at the European Court of Justice last year, as a rogue's charter allowing criminals to purge their misdeeds from the internet, and sleazy celebs to whitewash their reputations. Supporters of Google even compared it to removing the index cards from a library.

But the ruling is actually mainly used by ordinary people - as a study of Google's own metadata reveals.

For regular folk who haven't committed a serious crime but merely done something that was embarrassing in the past, Google can be very unforgiving. A prominent search engine result can have catastrophic consequences for somebody's job prospects and/or social life. The Gonzalez case, which Google fought for years, affirmed that people have the right to request that Google removes a link to information that isn't in the public interest and that is old and irrelevant. A Parisian court declared a month ago that Google couldn't evade RTBF by continuing to link to material via its Google.com domain.

However, Google has, until now, refused to provide detailed information on who is taking advantage of the ruling, misleadingly dubbed the "Right to be Forgotten", releasing only selected headline numbers. Yet researchers poring over the anonymised raw data that Google has provided (unhelpfully, in JSON format) noticed something.

Until March, Google had included metadata allowing inferences to be drawn on the kind of request being made. They could distinguish between requests made to remove a link to information about "serious crime", a "political" figure, or private personal information. And almost all requests are in the last category.

"The key insight is that Google has labeled 95 per cent of requests made under the Right to be Forgotten as ‘private personal info’. This suggests that these are mainly issues that you and your neighbour could have, not a criminal or a public figure. Furthermore, this is in sharp contrast to the examples of requests that Google shows on its Transparency Report website," the researchers note.

They also dispel concerns that criminals and shady politicians are using the ruling to whitewash their reputations.

"We believe [that they are] probably not. While around half of request labeled by Google as ‘private_personal_info’ are granted, the great majority of requests in the four other categories are rejected." they add.

Why the tortured non-disclosure?

"Google has the upper hand, and it wants to keep it," academic Julia Powles, who has analysed the data, notes at The Guardian.

The researchers call for far greater disclosure from Google, which has disappointed privacy advocates by choosing to act as secret judge and jury on every RTBF case.

Powles and her colleagues also hope that developers and journalists can find more details in the data dumps. You can find the project at Github, here. ®

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