On 13th May 2014, the European Court ruled that, “Individuals have the right - under certain conditions - to ask search engines to remove links with personal information about them. This applies where the information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive…” Spaniard Mario Consteja Gonzalez, who had won a five-year battle against Google to get links to articles about long-paid debts removed from its results when his name was searched, led this change. Thus, the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ arose.

The ruling caused much controversy. The House of Lords EU Committee described the legislation as “unworkable and wrong,” and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, argued it was “censoring history” and was a “very dangerous path to go down.” For over a year now, the media have been in frenzy, fearing that our right to a free and uncensored media has been hijacked by a ruling.

German newspapers mainly welcomed the decision as a triumph of privacy while mainstream US coverage focussed on fear of censorship (the UK was somewhere in between as usual).

Indeed, in theory this legislation could mean that politicians, criminals or even terrorists could potentially hide links to their past misdeeds and therefore change public perception. This wasn’t quashed either by Google, who in their transparency report gave little indication of who was actually taking advantage of the ‘Right to be Forgotten’. All they stated was that "Financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials," were examples that they had seen when deciding upon requests.

However, new data discovered and exposed by Sylvia Tippmann, with the help of The Guardian and CORRECT!V, shows a staggering 95 per cent of the requests in fact came from normal people requesting the removal of links to personal and private information. Over 250,000 requests have been received. Not all have been dealt with correctly though and it was reported in May that Google was in talks with regulators regarding cases it had not got ‘quite right’.

The notion that Google can provide an objective truth with its search results is naïve given that it (a) regularly has to cut search results on all domains for reasons of copyright and (b) gets manipulated by reputation management companies who actively work on the online appearance of their (rich) clients day-by-day.

This legislation and the findings exposed by Tippmann all beg the question: is it right to give Google the powers of judge, jury and executioner in the information that can be seen on the trusted search engine? Tippmann claims she has developed an innovative solution to Google’s problem, something she believes would increase transparency and democracy in their implementation of the ruling. Though the details of her solution remain classified, I spoke with her to discover how she uncovered the new data, what this all means for the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ debate and, interestingly - as this was an EU ruling - how this differs between countries.

Lucy Slater: Why did you begin to look into the Right to be Forgotten?

Sylvia Tippmann: It all started with an essay I had to write at the end of my Journalism MA at City University about the legitimacy of the Right to be Forgotten ruling (in respect to freedom of information and right to privacy)… German newspapers mainly welcomed the decision as a triumph of privacy while mainstream US coverage focussed on fear of censorship (the UK was somewhere in between as usual). I personally feel ‘rather German’ about it… I think the gain in privacy outweighs the cutback in freedom and access of information of the search engine user. The notion that Google can provide an objective truth with its search results is naïve given that it (a) regularly has to cut search results on all domains for reasons of copyright and (b) gets manipulated by reputation management companies who actively work on the online appearance of their (rich) clients day-by-day.

How is the Right to be Forgotten useful or dangerous for the average person?

LS: How did your discovery of the data come about?

ST: I definitely read too much about the Right to be Forgotten… I took every chance to philosophise with people about it. My university friend (Simon Pamies, now Software Architect) wondered why Google wasn’t being more creative about solving the problem of implementation - they are a data company after all. Hiring a little army of paralegals and crying about the workload seemed hardly ambitious… and we had a better idea.

I listened to the Advisory Council Recordings to make sure nobody else had proposed this before, consulted some friends in artificial intelligence, marketing and app development for feasibility, and formulated this sketchy idea into a proper technical proposal with the aim to pitch to Google… I also noticed that the compliance rate for Right to be Forgotten requests varied a lot between Germany and the UK, but the way it was presented on Google’s Transparency Report didn’t allow for good visual comparison between countries.

Privacy and freedom of information (or the press) are valued differently between cultures.

I crawled for JSON files but couldn’t find out where it was loading the charts from until Simon said: “Line 861, it’s in the html.” It’s a bit careless to structure a website like this, certainly not how you would expect Google to release their Transparency Report. When I realised that the data object in the code held much more information than what was displayed on the front-end of the page, I called a handful of trusted people to save the webpage independently.

I figured it would just be a matter of time until Google noticed the mistake themselves, they would remove the data and some front-end development intern would be in big trouble. Indeed, when I came back to re-scrape the Transparency Report a couple of weeks later, the detailed breakdown was gone.

The ‘Right to be Forgotten’, if implemented to benefit the people, may actually make the press itself more free.

LS: You say that this data is the missing piece in the debate. What do you think the implications of releasing the data are and how do you think this will affect the debate surrounding the Right to be Forgotten?

ST: I would say the data is one of many missing pieces. There are certainly more facts we need to know. This data shows, ‘Look, requests are almost always coming from people worrying about their privacy.’ This insight hopefully shifts the debate from the drastic cases Google presents on its Transparency Report as examples (and that are consequently used by journalists in newspaper articles) to a debate about ‘How is the Right to be Forgotten useful or dangerous for the average person?’

Lack of transparency is a problem because it restrains democracy. When we don’t understand what’s going on, we cannot take part, really.

LS: You have said you believe the answer to the question of privacy versus inhibition of press freedom is a cultural one - what do you mean by this? And do you think that the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ has implications for public knowledge and the media industry?

ST: Privacy and freedom of information (or the press) are valued differently between cultures. Having lived in Germany, Austria and Switzerland on one side and the US and UK on the other side, I see that reflected in the opinions of local people. While most Germans probably don’t know if Angela Merkel is married and don’t care where she spends her summer holidays, there is a whole bunch of legislation around that in the UK because people do want to know these things about their politicians. In the US, freedom of information has such a priority that there are hardly any restrictions on the media. The ‘Right to be Forgotten’, if implemented to benefit the people, may actually make the press itself more free. When people can actively shape their online self on the level of search engines, there is no need to interfere with newspaper content for information that is outdated or excessive. You could still find the information online via the newspaper itself, which is where it should always be on record.

What I do blame Google for is not putting enough intellectual effort into implementing the ruling in a way it was meant to be.

LS: Putting aside the question of whether the ruling was right or wrong, do you believe that the primary problem lies in Google’s transparency, or lack thereof?

ST: Lack of transparency is a problem because it restrains democracy. When we don’t understand what’s going on, we cannot take part, really. The right for privacy and freedom of information are concepts in law. But really, all this is there for is to protect democracy, right? It is not Google’s fault that the ECJ dumped this task on them and in many ways you cannot blame Google for not being transparent. What I do blame Google for is not putting enough intellectual effort into implementing the ruling in a way it was meant to be. The judges made a conceptual decision, that’s their job; Google’s job is to implement it technically. Given they have over 90 per cent of search engine market share in Europe, I think they have an obligation to do their job well. I think Google can do better and they are currently choosing not to.

To publish a list of de-linked articles is a decision each publication has to take; there is no rule that says they can’t. But by highlighting these drastic examples again, they just support Google’s campaign against the ruling in general.

LS: A number of large media organisations e.g. The BBC, The Telegraph and Wikipedia continue to publish lists of articles that have been removed from Google. Do you think that with more transparency and better communication from the search engine about who is requesting to be hidden and why, these lists will become unnecessary?

ST: The links these publishers release are probably not representative of the average request. I suspect that you will find the data subjects of these articles will be enriched in stuff relating to crime and politics because this is the nature of things newspapers report about in the first place. The Telegraph doesn’t write an article about someone’s silly photo on Facebook. To publish a list of de-linked articles is a decision each publication has to take; there is no rule that says they can’t. But by highlighting these drastic examples again, they just support Google’s campaign against the ruling in general. Given that neither publishers nor the public have any real insight into Google’s decision process, that was probably the next best thing newspapers thought they could do.

Find out more: http://sytpp.github.io/rtbf/index.html

Words: Lucy Slater

Image source:  Datamatics, 2006 by Ryoji Ikeda