Internet users in Europe have something Internet users in the U.S. don't have: a right to be forgotten online. Thanks to a 2014 court case, Europeans can ask search giants to remove results that are outdated, inaccurate, or irrelevant — giving them more control over their online reputations.
But now, one consumer group is asking the Federal Trade Commission to make Google bring that privacy protection to Americans. In a formal complaint to be sent to the agency Tuesday, Consumer Watchdog argues that withholding that ability from U.S. Internet users is unfair and deceptive — two types of business practices the FTC is charged with protecting consumers against. The letter urges the FTC to "investigate and act" on the situation.
The right to be forgotten, or the right of relevancy, has gained new urgency in the digital age, the group argues in the letter to the FTC. "Before the Internet if someone did something foolish when they were young – and most of us probably did – there might well be a public record of what happened," the letter says. But then, those indiscretions required digging to bring up years or decades down the line — and now they're "instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device."
The right to be forgotten gives back a level of the privacy by obscurity that people enjoyed before the Internet age, Consumer Watchdog argues. But Google has been unwilling to extend the practice beyond where it's currently explicitly required — a state of affairs John Simpson, the director of the organization’s Privacy Project, believes puts it on the wrong side of the FTC's mandate to protect consumers.
"Google holds itself out as so concerned about users' privacy, but denies this fundamental privacy protection — that's deceptive," Simpson said in an interview. He also argued that depriving Americans of the right to request the removal of irrelevant search responses meets the FTC's definition for unfairness: a practice that causes harm to consumers that they can't reasonably avoid and isn't outweighed by other benefits.
The European right to be forgotten has been controversial — with some critics arguing that it has the potential to conflict with freedom of expression or the press.
But extending the right to be forgotten to the U.S. doesn't mean that Google would approve all take down requests, said Simpson. Nor would it amount to censorship, he argued, because the information would still be available online if Google removed search results — it would just become harder to find.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the complaint. The company's transparency report says it has removed around 41 percent of URLs evaluated under the European right to be forgotten.
The company will currently remove some kinds of highly sensitive personal information, like Social Security numbers and credit card numbers, from search results for people around the world. And it recently announced that it would be allowing victims of so-called "revenge porn" — the sharing of explicit images without a subject's consent — to request results be taken down.
The company's approach to that kind of content "underscores the unfairness" of letting Europeans have a right to be forgotten, but withholding it from Americans, Consumer Watchdog argues in its complaint.