Can I get Google to Un-list Me?
Over the last 10 to 15 years the internet has changed a lot of things. Most of this change has been for the better as people and businesses find it easier to connect, get things done, and find information. But the internet has also created a number of philosophical and moral questions, most of which remain unresolved. One of those questions has been in the news recently: the right to be forgotten. This involves stopping search engines from showing certain results and it has led to many people asking: “Can I get Google to un-list me?”
This has been an ongoing debate for some time but it became super-charged following a court ruling in Europe. That court ruling involved something quite simple – an old and now resolved debt that belonged to an Italian called Mario Costeja González.
The details of this debt appeared in a 1998 newspaper advertisement which Google indexed. When someone searched for Mr González’s name the advertisement appeared in the results. He successfully argued in Europe’s highest court that this breached his right to privacy so Google had to remove it.
This ruling was in May 2014 and in the months that followed tens of thousands of Europeans requested that Google remove certain references to them in search results. Note that this only applies to Europe – at the moment. There are no indications that the law will change in the United States but other countries like Canada, Hong Kong and Japan are looking at it seriously.
Here is the moral question: do individuals have a right to be forgotten? In the case of Mr González the original advertisement still exists in paper copies of the 1998 newspaper and the courts did not order their destruction. Instead they took the view that the internet had to be treated differently because of the ease of access and the immediacy of the information.
But there is another twist in the debate: they did not remove the information from the internet. Instead they ordered a search engine to stop displaying links to it but if you know the URL of the 1998 newspaper you can still find it. That is one of the unresolved issues with the position in Europe. Another is that fact that the responsibility has been given to Google. It doesn’t want it but in the current situation it has to decide whether a person’s right to privacy overrides the freedom-of-expression right of the website which holds the information.
The problem with that is Google is a technology company. It is not a court or judicial organization which raises questions regarding its ability to make decisions like these.
Right to be Forgotten
Leaving the moral question aside, for Europeans the process of getting a URL removed from Google’s search results requires filling in a form.
In the United States and other countries it is not as easy, but you have three options.
The first option is to contact Google directly but this only works in a limited number of scenarios. For example, it will consider removing personal information like Social Security numbers or bank accounts numbers, but it will not remove your date of birth or your address. Google will also consider requests to remove "offensive images".
The second option is to directly contact the owner of the website that has published the information. Google itself does not publish much content, particularly when it comes to search. Instead it gives you details about the information held on other websites. If you get the information removed from the other website it will also disappear from Google’s search results. The process is not easy and will depend on whether the owner of the other website cooperates, but it is an option that you should always try.
The third and final option does not actually remove the information. Instead it involves pushing the content you don’t want people to see beyond page one of a Google search. The number of people who will see the content will reduce dramatically, depending on how far you can push it down. The way that you push it down is to create good, positive content about you and get it published. Again this is not an easy process and involves a lot of SEO and social marketing. But it’s still an option.
It will be interesting to see where the debate goes over the next months and years on the issue of the right-to-be-forgotten. As it stands now unless you live in Europe you have limited options and they all involve a lot of work.