The Guardian has reported today on data emerging from Google about how it has implemented the Google Spain ‘right to be forgotten’ principle over the past year or so: see this very interesting article by Julia Powles.
While the data is rough-and-ready, it appears to indicate that the vast majority of RTBF requests actioned by Google have concerned ‘ordinary people’. By that I mean people who are neither famous nor infamous, and who seek not to have high-public-interest stories erased from history, but to have low-public-interest personal information removed from the fingertips of anyone who cares to Google their name. Okay, that explanation here is itself rough-and-ready, but you get the point: most RTBF requests come not from Max Mosley types, but from Mario Costeja González types (he being the man who brought the Google Spain complaint in the first place).
As Julia Powles points out, today’s rough-and-ready is thus far the best we have to go on in terms of understanding how the RTBF is actually working in practice. There is very little transparency on this. Blame for that opaqueness cannot fairly be levelled only at Google and its ilk – though, as the Powles articles argues, they may have a vested interest in maintaining that opaqueness. Opaqueness was inevitable following a judgment like Google Spain, and European regulators have, perhaps forgivably, not yet produced detailed guidance at a European level on how the public can expect such requests to be dealt with. In the UK, the ICO has given guidance (see here) and initiated complaints process (see here).
Today’s data suggests to me that a further reason for this opaqueness is the ‘ordinary person’ factor: the Max Mosleys of the world tend to litigate (and then settle) when they are dissatisfied, but the ordinary person tends not to (Mr González being an exception). We remain largely in the dark about how this web-shaping issue works.
So: the ordinary person is most in need of transparent RTBF rules, but least equipped to fight for them.
How might that be resolved? Options seem to me to include some combination of (a) clear regulatory guidance, tested in the courts, (b) litigation by a Max Mosley-type figure which runs its course, (c) litigation by more Mr González figures (i.e. ordinary individuals), (d) litigation by groups of ordinary people (as in Vidal Hall, for example) – or perhaps (e) litigation by members of the media who object to their stories disappearing from Google searches.
The RTBF is still in its infancy. Google may be its own judge for now, but one imagines not for long.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin