Whether it's a night of college shenanigans that have found their way onto YouTube, a privacy breach outside our control or a news item involving business dealings from decades ago, many of us have items in our online profiles that we'd love to erase. But while humans may forgive and forget over time, the Internet has an almost infinite ability to "remember," with online images, videos and text documents providing a near-permanent record of our personal and professional histories.
Thanks to a May 2014 decision by the top court of the European Union, individuals in Europe now have the right to be forgotten -- or at least to request the removal of results that turn up in an Internet search for their own names [sources: Google, Schechner]. The decision stemmed from a 2010 case brought by a Spanish national who complained that when someone searched his name in the Spanish version of Google, the top search results included links to a 1998 newspaper announcement advertising an auction to settle his old social security debts [source: Court of Justice of the European Union].
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that individuals may request search engines to remove results that are "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed" [source: Newcomb]. In response, Google set up a Web form where users can submit a request to have specific results removed for search queries including their name [sources: Google, Schechner].
Google has not shared the technical specifics as to how the results are removed, except to say that each request is individually reviewed by a "removals team" and evaluated to weigh the individual's right to privacy against the public's right to know [sources: Google, Schechner]. Users requesting search removal are required to specify the URL for each particular item they wish to have removed from their search results [source: Google]. The documents themselves are not removed from the Internet or blocked from search queries unrelated to the requestor's name; they are merely removed from a particular name search.
For example, in its May 2014 decision, the ECJ ruled that search results for the name "Mario Costeja González" should no longer include links to the newspaper advertising of the 1998 real estate auction in Catalonia, Spain. However, a user searching for "real estate auctions in Catalonia" (without Mr. Costeja González's name) could still find the 1998 announcement. The results are scrubbed only for Google domains in the European Union, so a search for the same name in the United States could still display the undesirable result [sources: Hill, Newcomb, Schechner].
- Court of Justice of the European Union. "Judgment in Case C-131/12: An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties." May 13, 2104. (August 11, 2014) http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2014-05/cp140070en.pdf
- Google. "Search removal request under data protection law in Europe." (August 11, 2014) https://support.google.com/legal/contact/lr_eudpa?product=websearch
- Hill, Kashmir. "Google Offers Up 'Forget Me' Form." May 30, 2014. (August 11, 2014) http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2014/05/30/google-offers-up-forget-me-form/
- Newcomb, Alyssa. "What It Takes to Be 'Forgotten' on Google." ABC News. May 30, 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/takes-forgotten-google/story?id=23929606
- Schechner, Sam. "Google Starts Removing Search Results Under Europe's 'Right to be Forgotten.'" Wall Street Journal. June 26, 2014. (August 11, 2014) http://online.wsj.com/articles/google-starts-removing-search-results-under-europes-right-to-be-forgotten-1403774023