Google needs to be more transparent in the way it handles so-called “right to be forgotten” requests, with 80 leading academics writing an open letter that accuses the firm of developing its policies “in the dark”.
In the detailed and strongly worded four-page letter shared with the Guardian, experts in technology law, data protection and philosophy claim that releasing more information about the volume, character and classification of removal requests would benefit the public and help inform a wider global discussion on privacy and personal data.
“The public should be able to find out how digital platforms exercise their tremendous power over readily accessible information,” says the letter.
“Beyond anecdote, we know very little about what kind and quantity of information is being delisted from search results, what sources are being delisted and on what scale, what kinds of requests fail and in what proportion, and what are Google’s guidelines in striking the balance between individual privacy and freedom of expression interests.”
The European Court of Justice ruled one year ago that Google is responsible for removing links to outdated, irrelevant or misrepresentative information on search results for individuals. Representing 90% of Europe’s search engine market, Google has been the focus of the so-called “right to be forgotten” implementation.
Google responded by developing substantial processes and criteria internally for responding to requests, and established an independent advisory panel of legal and ethical experts that toured seven European cities on an evidence-gathering tour.
But it has released limited information on the 250,000 requests it says it has received, and academic specialists – including two members of Google’s own advisory council – say that search engines have been left to decide how to determine complex judgments about the balance between personal privacy and access to information.
“The vast majority of these decisions face no public scrutiny, though they shape public discourse. What’s more, the values at work in this process will/should inform information policy around the world. A fact-free debate about the RTBF is in no one’s interest,” the letter says.
“We are not the only ones who want more transparency. Google’s own Advisory Council on the RTBF in February 2015 recommended more transparency, as did the Article 29 Working Party in November 2014.
“[There are] few safeguards for the public interest in information access. Data protection authorities seem content to rely on search engines’ application of the ruling’s balancing test, citing low appeal rates as evidence that the balance is being appropriately struck. Of course, this statistic reveals no such thing.”