Google’s Failure To Offer ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ In United States Is Unfair And Deceptive, Consumer Watchdog Tells Federal Trade Commission In Complaint

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SANTA MONICA, CA — Google’s failure to offer U.S. users the ability to request the removal of search engine links from their name to information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive is an “unfair and deceptive” practice, Consumer Watchdog said in a complaint today to the Federal Trade Commission.

In Europe where the Internet giant has removed 41.3 percent of such links when requested, this is known as the “Right To Be Forgotten.” More accurately this ability is the “Right To Relevancy” or “Privacy By Obscurity” for the digital age, said Consumer Watchdog.

“Google’s refusal to consider such requests in the United States is both unfair and deceptive, violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “We urge the Commission to investigate and act.”

Google’s recent announcement that it would honor requests to remove links from its search results to so-called “revenge porn” – nude or explicit photos posted without the subject’s consent – shows that Google could easily honor Right To Be Forgotten requests in the U.S., Simpson said.

“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,” Consumer Watchdog’s complaint said. “Though Google claims it is concerned about users’ privacy, it does not offer U.S. users the ability to make such a basic request.  Describing yourself as championing users’ privacy and not offering a key privacy tool – indeed one offered all across Europe – is deceptive behavior.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s complaint here:

Not offering Americans a basic privacy tool, while providing it to millions of users across Europe, is also an unfair practice, the complaint said. Acts or practices by a business are unfair under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act if they cause or are likely to cause substantial injury to consumers that consumers cannot reasonably avoid themselves and that is not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition.

The complaint then listed some examples of people who have been harmed by Google’s refusal to honor Right of Relevancy or Right To Be Forgotten removal requests in the United States. Clearly there is no countervailing benefit in continuing to link to the items from search results, Consumer Watchdog said.  Here are the examples:

•    A young California woman was decapitated in a tragic auto accident.  Photos from the grisly accident scene were wrongfully leaked by California Highway Patrol officers and posted to the Internet.  A search on her name still returns the horrible photographs.

•    A guidance counselor was fired in 2012 after modeling photos from 20 years prior surfaced. She was a lingerie model between the ages of 18-20, and she had disclosed her prior career when she first was hired. Despite this, when a photo was found online and shown to the principal of her school, she was fired.

•    A Florida doctor locked herself in the bedroom to hide from her violent boyfriend. He used a steak knife to jimmy the door open. As he entered she scratched his chest with her fingernails. When the police arrived, both she and her boyfriend were arrested, her boyfriend having claimed the scratches on his chest were from the knife. She was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and battery domestic violence. The charges against were soon dropped. Soon after her photo showed up on a mug shot website. Anyone who Googled her name found this information as one of the top results. The mug-shot websites demanded hundreds of dollars to remove the photos.

Google’s own experience in Europe demonstrates that Right To Be Forgotten removal requests can be managed in a way that is fair and not burdensome for Google.  Since Google began considering Right To Be Forgotten requests last May, Google has received 274,462 removal requests. The Internet giant evaluated 997,008 URLs for removal from its search results, and has dropped 348,794 or 41.3 percent.  It declined to remove 495,673, or 58.7 percent of the links.

It is important to understand what the Right To Be Forgotten as implemented by Google in Europe does and does not do, Consumer Watchdog said. “It is not censorship.  It does not remove content from the Web.  It 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. Americans deserve the same ability to make such a privacy-protecting request,” the complaint said.

The Consumer Watchdog complaint cited examples given by Google of when removal requests were granted and when they were denied in Europe:

•    A woman in Italy requested that Google remove a decades-old article about her husband’s murder, which included her name. The page was removed from search results for her name.

•    A Swiss financial professional asked Google to remove more than 10 links to pages reporting on his arrest and conviction for financial crimes. Google did not remove the pages from search results.

•    A rape victim in Germany asked Google to remove a link to a newspaper article about the crime. The page was removed from search results for the individual’s name.

•    Google received multiple requests from an Italian asking Google to remove 20 links to recent articles about his arrest for financial crimes committed in a professional capacity. Google did not remove the pages from search results.

•    A media professional in the UK asked Google to remove four links to articles reporting on embarrassing content he posted to the Internet.  Google did not remove the pages from search results.

•    An Italian crime victim asked Google to remove three links that discuss the crime, which occurred decades ago. The pages were removed from search results for her name.

•    In the UK a man asked Google to remove links to articles on the Internet that reference his dismissal for sexual crimes committed on the job. Google did not remove the pages from search results.

Consumer Watchdog’s complaint explained what the Right to Be Forgotten means in practical terms:

“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. Over time, as they aged, people tended to forget whatever embarrassing things someone did in their youth.  They would be judged mostly based on their current circumstances, not on information no longer relevant.  If someone else were highly motivated, they could go back into paper files and folders and dig up a person’s past.  Usually this required effort and motivation.  For a reporter, for instance, this sort of deep digging was routine with, say, candidates for public office, not for Joe Blow citizen.  This reality that our youthful indiscretions and embarrassments and other matters no longer relevant slipped from the general public’s consciousness is Privacy By Obscurity.  The Digital Age has ended that. Everything – all our digital footprints – are instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device.”

The complaint concluded:

“Now, the Right To Be Forgotten is simply restoring the balance in Europe that is provided with Privacy By Obscurity.  The right simply allows a European to identify links that are no longer relevant and ask for their removal.  Removal won’t always happen, but the balance Google appears to have found between privacy and the public’s right to know demonstrates Google can make the Right to Be Forgotten work in the United States.  The Internet giant’s current approach of refusing to do so while claiming to protect users’ privacy is both unfair and deceptive. Consumer Watchdog calls on the Commission to act.”


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John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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