Will the right to be forgotten spread across the Atlantic to the United States?
Hoping the answer is "yes," Consumer Watchdog filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission arguing that the agency should "investigate and act" on the issue. The group told the FTC that Google provides the right to remove search engine links in Europe and similar rights are recognized in other U.S. laws, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act which requires that certain information, such as tax liens, be removed from consumer reports after a set period of time. According to Consumer Watchdog, Google's failure to offer Americans such a basic privacy tool is an unfair and deceptive practice.
Last year the European Court of Justice, in ordering Google to remove links regarding a Spanish attorney, recognized the "right to be forgotten," and that the links regarding his debts were "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive." Since then Google has received more than 270,000 removal requests and dropped 41.3 percent of the links.
"Not offering Americans a basic privacy tool, while providing it to millions of users across Europe, is … an unfair practice," in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, Consumer Watchdog wrote. Further, Google's terms and conditions state that "[p]rotecting the privacy and security of our customers' information is a top priority," so the denial of that right in the U.S. is also deceptive, the group argued.
"In other words the Internet giant aggressively and repeatedly holds itself out to users as being deeply committed to privacy. Without a doubt requesting the removal of a search engine link from one's name to irrelevant data under the Right to Be Forgotten (or Right to Relevancy) is an important privacy option. Though Google claims it is concerned about users' privacy, it does not offer U.S. users the ability to make this basic request. Describing yourself as championing users' privacy while not offering a key privacy tool—indeed one offered all across Europe—is deceptive behavior."
The complaint cited examples of Americans who have been harmed by their inability to request a removal of embarrassing links, including a guidance counselor who was fired after photos of her as a lingerie model from 20 years prior surfaced online.
Google already removes certain types of links from U.S. search results, the group noted, such as revenge porn or when data that includes Social Security numbers appear. "As clearly demonstrated by its willingness to remove links to certain information when requested in the United States, Google could easily offer the Right To Be Forgotten or the Right To Relevancy request option to Americans," Consumer Watchdog wrote. "It unfairly and deceptively opts not to do so."
The group emphasized that the Right to Be Forgotten does not constitute censorship or the removal of content from the Internet that would raise First Amendment issues. Instead, the "right simply allows a person to request that links from their name to data that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive be removed from search results," Consumer Watchdog argued. "Americans deserve the same ability to make such a privacy-protecting request and have it honored."
To read Consumer Watchdog's complaint filed with the FTC, click here.
Why it matters: Consumer Watchdog argued that the Right To Be Forgotten is not a new right but a restoration of the balance provided prior to the Digital Age. "Removal won't always happen, but the balance Google has found between privacy and the public's right to know demonstrates Google can make the Right To Be Forgotten or Right To Relevancy work in the United States," the group wrote. Whether or not the FTC agrees remains an open question.