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The Right to Be Forgotten Isn't Just About Fixing Reputations

Forget.me makes it easy for the average Joe to request the removal of Google results—but most users are more concerned about hiding their address than burying news stories.

Image: Gil C/Shutterstock

Google search results have long been unpredictable and uncontrollable, with the top sites returned for a given search term down to the whim of secretive algorithms. But the recent European Court ruling on the “right to be forgotten” has handed some control back to individuals in the EU, who can now request certain results not to appear when someone googles them.

This week, news outlets started reporting on some of their own pages that had been removed from searches. But the right to be forgotten doesn’t just extend to those who make the papers.

French company Reputation VIP has made a site called forget.me geared specifically to members of the public who want to request a search result removal, and statistics they’ve gathered from their users offer an interesting insight into what regular internet citizens really want to hide.

The company’s CEO, Bertrand Girin, told me that of all the removals requested so far through forget.me, links on press websites only account for three percent. Eighteen percent of results that people wanted forgotten, he said, were on social media sites like Facebook.

The company looked at all the results their users in the UK, France, and Germany (which make up half of their subscribers) requested to be removed. They compared these against a public list of around 200 press sites in the countries and found only a very small amount of crossover. 

Their stats only took into account requests made through forget.me, which had submitted 1,106 requests by the end of last month after just a week of operation. But though it’s only a small portion of the overall requests, which Google has said is now over 50,000, it offers an interesting perspective on the debate. While the removal of press coverage from search results rings alarm bells for freedom of expression and public interest, the removal of someone’s information on a social media site seems, well, fair enough.

Girin told me they didn’t yet analyse why people were seeking to remove information on social media sites, but hypothesised that one reason could be because they find it hard to fully close accounts they no longer want, so their profiles still show up in search results. “Our guess from social network demands is because they don’t find how to close the accounts, or they have lost the password and they don’t know how to get it back … and so they ask for the right to be forgotten,” he said. 

Of the requests forget.me has submitted, 28 percent have been categorised as “invasion of privacy,” with the top complaint within that category “disclosure of home address.” People don’t just want to remove links to save themselves embarrassment, it seems, but to keep personal details private. We don’t yet know how many of these requests will be approved by Google.

I tried out forget.me to understand what a regular Joe would have to do to get information removed. Google offers a relatively simple form to fill out on their website, but Girin explained they wanted to make the explanation part—where you have to write why the search result is irrelevant, inadequate, or excessive—easier.

To use the site, you sign up and are confronted with the top search results for your name. Mine weren’t interesting: Twitter was up top, followed by my Motherboard author page, personal website, and a bunch of other social media—whose dominance in results might go some way in explaining why people are so keen to clean them up.

I couldn’t find anything bad enough in the first few pages that I’d actually want to remove it, which made me feel pretty boring but also quite relieved, so I just chose a random result (I didn’t actually submit the request). You then choose a broad category as to why you want it removed, such as the most popular, “invasion of privacy,” then a subcategory like the above, “disclosure of home address.”

A ready-prepared but adaptable explanatory text then appears, which forget.me had written by lawyers. “If you have a problem you can go and try to find the case that applies to you, and at least you have a template in place that you can adapt and that the search engine will understand, so it makes things easier for both parties,” said Girin. The whole process takes a matter of minutes.

Girin said they hadn’t had enough responses back yet to say how long it usually takes for Google to make a decision, though in some simple cases, such as addresses appearing on listings sites, they’d had links removed within hours.

I searched for myself on one of the listing sites he mentioned, and found that they have my details, though the page doesn’t appear anywhere near the top when you search my name on Google. And as the address they have for me is very out of date, I’m quite happy to let them keep it. 

While forget.me's stats are a small portion of overall requests submitted under the right to be forgotten, they offer an interesting picture of why many people might want to fiddle with their results—and, perhaps, a more convincing justification as to why they should be able to. Seeking to remove your home address from a Google search is a lot less onerous than trying to block mention of your child abuse conviction.

Google admitted today that it had been over-zealous in removing news results under the ruling, with a representative telling the BBC they were "learning as we go" and had re-instated the removed news pages in search queries. It's clear the boundaries of what should be included under the right to be forgotten ruling need to be better defined to draw a line between legitimate privacy concerns and censorship against the public interest.

In the meantime, perhaps some of the burden of requests relating to the former could be lifted if social media sites made it easier for people to remove their own details in the first place.