Even those of us who didn’t grow up in the Internet age can still find traces of our much younger selves online, which can occasionally make for a fun trip down memory lane. But not everyone is pleased with the idea that every online mention of their name may be forever etched into Google’s search memory. In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that people have a legal “right to be forgotten” by Internet search engines, requiring Google and others to consider such removal requests from residents of the 28 EU countries. A new complaint filed today with federal regulators is calling for a similar program in the U.S.
The complaint [PDF], filed with the Federal Trade Commission by advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, argues not just that Google should be honoring “right to be forgotten” requests stateside, but that the company’s refusal to do so is a violation of federal law.
Section 5 of the FTC Act prohibits unfair and deceptive acts in interstate commerce, and the letter alleges that Google’s behavior with regard to privacy issues is deceptive.
“The Internet giant holds itself out to be committed to users’ privacy, but does not honor requests that provide a key privacy protection,” reads the petition, citing repeated statements by Google that privacy is “important to us,” that the company is “constantly working to ensure strong security, protect your privacy,” and other similar declarations.
Consumer Watchdog contends that if Google is indeed so committed to privacy, that it would honor requests from American users to be forgotten by irrelevant or outdated search results.
“Describing yourself as championing users’ privacy while not offering a key privacy tool – indeed one offered all across Europe – is deceptive behavior,” writes CW’s John Simpson, who also argues that Google’s offering of the forget-me tool to EU users and not U.S. users is an unfair practice int that is “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 letter gives multiple examples of cases where CW believes Google’s failure to forget things has resulted in negative consequences, including: the New York school guidance counselor who was fired from her job after photos of her as a teen lingerie model (a job she’d disclosed when she was hired) surfaced online two decades after they had been taken; a Florida doctor wrongly accused with aggravated assault by a violent boyfriend, but whose mugshot was the top Google result for her name; and the young car crash victim in California whose name brings up grisly, leaked crime scene photos when you search for her in Google.
CW says it isn’t trying to quash public records or have content removed from websites, but to bring back the long-established notion of “Privacy By Obscurity,” through which normal citizens can get beyond past transgressions by not repeating them and by living normal lives.
“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,” writes Simpson. “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… 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.”
Google is not required to grant every removal request. About 41% of such requests were recently granted in the EU, according to the company’s own transparency report.
While Google does not offer the “right to be forgotten” option here in the U.S., it did recently announce that it will give victims of so-called “revenge porn” a way to remove their images from search results.