Surge of Requests to Be “Forgotten” Online

Following the European Court of Justice decision earlier this year in Google Spain v AEPD and Mario Costeja González, Google has had a flood of requests to have webpages deleted from their index. More than a third of these requests, or over 60,000 links, come from the U.K.

Google released data today demonstrating where the requests originate from:

URL removal

To date, Google has evaluated nearly 500,000 links for removal. More than half of all urls reviewed by Google are removed, meaning that there are still many others that they do not.

This data also reveals that the vast majority of the links involved relate to social media sites. Whereas newspapers or blogs may update their content themselves, the nature of how information flows and is shared on social media sites means that undesirable content can often be far more “sticky.”

Sites impacted by removal

Although the court’s ruling only applies to the EU, we do have cases in Canada which illustrate the danger and harms that misinformation can create online. There is much that should be “forgotten” online, and there are some cases where it would be a moral obligation to do so.

Robyn Doolittle of The Globe describes the story of a Toronto schoolteacher who slipped and fell into Lake Ontario, tragically dying as a result. Embellishments to the story on social media sites resulted in the story turning into a suicide as a result of sexual misconduct against a student. The impact on the bereaved is significant,

Trish Queen had been a widow about a month when she realized what people were whispering.

“I’d always found it strange that some people didn’t ask what happened. Then someone said something to [sister in-law] Karen about suicide,” the 46-year-old recalled. “That’s when I realized, those people aren’t asking because they think Doug killed himself because of what happened at the school.”

But that is not what happened – despite the gossip.

None of this was true.

The Globe story is an exception where the record is corrected online, and it’s still questionable whether the limited news coverage addressing the rumours would tip the scales back. The apology in the newspaper rarely gets the same attention as the false headline which prompted it, and the Internet is no different.

The common law protections of slander and defamation are insufficient in many of these cases, as they do not protect the deceased, may reflect information which is undesirable but not damaging, or is information that was true at the time of reporting but is now obsolete.

At present, the majority of non-EU removals by Google outside of copyright claims are still based on defamation.

removal requests

Although the number of successful court orders has increased in recent years, it is still a very expensive and inefficient mechanism, largely inaccessible to the majority of the public.

The challenge with inter-jurisdiction regulation is highlighted by Anna Sauerbrey in the New York Times, speaking about German apprehension of Google,

Google is often spoken of in dark terms around cafes and biergartens. People regularly call it the Octopus. Even a figure as dominant in the global economy as Mathias Döpfner, the chief executive of Springer, Germany’s largest publishing house, said he was “afraid of Google.”

Silicon Valley fears neither fines nor political reprimand. It invests millions in lobbying in Brussels and Berlin, but since it finds the democratic political process too slow, it keeps following its own rules in the meantime… Amazon is pushing German publishers to offer their books on its platform at a lower price — ignoring that, in Germany, publishers are legally required to offer their books at the same price everywhere.

It is this anarchical spirit that makes Germans so neurotic. On one hand, we’d love to be more like that: more daring, more aggressive. On the other hand, the force of anarchy makes Germans (and many other Europeans) shudder, and rightfully so. It’s a challenge to our deeply ingrained faith in the state.

Sauerbrey concludes that Germans love technology and the Internet, but want it provided on their own terms. This doesn’t seem much to ask for, and for widows like Trish Queen I would like to say that we can have the same here in Canada too.



  1. David Collier-Brown

    The trick is going to be finding a balance between one’s right to speak, the complimentary right to hear / obtain information, and the right to not be lied about.

    All are blunt instruments, and hard to use in concert.

    In an actively free-speech regime, “more speech” is a response, and was used in the past to ensure one wasn’t being lied about. On usenet, a very noisy collection of message boards, the usual response to someone spreading misinformation was to provide accurate information. If the original speaker agreed, you were done.

    If the speaker disagreed, you got a noisy argument that sometimes degraded into “flame wars” or battling post-robots (;-))

    The first step is arguably something to try: if a publisher posts something that’s seriously wrong, send them the real information and ask them to update the story. If they agree, that’s fine.

    If they don’t, and its so very false it’s actionable, have your lawyer or other resolver-of-disputes speak to them, and if necessary, apply a clue-stick to their heads.

    It’s the middle ground and the agaregators that are hard. If you don’t have a case that can be heard by a court, or if you’re talking to a company that just posts or searches for links, what should one do?