On June 20, 2006, the BBC's Web site published the article “Heiress killed in fit of jealousy,” which discussed the manslaughter conviction of Richard Holtby, who was found to have strangled his former fiance.
This May, Google delisted links to the piece from its search results in the U.K. after receiving a request to take it down, the BBC says. The search engine didn't tell the BBC who made that request, or the requests to delist the other 181 BBC.com articles that no longer appear on Google's search results pages.
All told, Google has delisted more than 200,000 links since May of 2014, when the EU Court of Justice created the “right to be forgotten.”
The ruling enables European Union residents to ask Google (and other search companies) to purge links to embarrassing news articles or other information they want hidden from view. Google doesn't have to automatically honor those requests. Instead, the company is supposed to weigh people's rights to privacy against the public interest in the information.
The EU's decision also doesn't require news organizations to remove their archives, so the underlying articles often remain available online regardless of Google's decision.
In the U.S., there's no question that many people have not been happy when they view search results associated with their names. But unlike the case in Europe, American free speech principles tend to protect companies' ability to publish truthful material -- even if the information embarrasses or upsets people.
Nonetheless, the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog -- a frequent Google critic -- is now asking the Federal Trade Commission to require Google to follow the right-to-be-forgotten ruling in America.
The organization argues that Google's refusal to “honor the right” is deceptive and unfair, given that Google says it's concerned about users' privacy.
“The Internet giant aggressively and repeatedly holds itself out to users as being deeply committed to privacy,” Consumer Watchdog says in a letter sent to the FTC this week. “Without a doubt requesting the removal of a search engine link from one’s name to irrelevant data under the Right To Be Forgotten ... is an important privacy option.”
Obviously, however, while Google certainly says it's committed to users' privacy, the company isn't referring to the links contained in its search results. After all, search results have never been seen as protective of privacy. Instead, when Google talks about protecting privacy, the context of those statements makes clear that it's referring to material like data provided by users -- such as the names of Gmail account holders.
Consumer Watchdog also insists that requiring Google to honor the right to be forgotten “would not raise First Amendment issues in the United States,” because the government wouldn't tell Google which results to purge. Instead, under Consumer Watchdog's proposal, the government would instruct the company to balance people's privacy against the public interest in the information.
But mandating that a company follow government-issued standards when making publishing decisions clearly limits free speech by restricting the company's ability to follow its own, independent standards. In fact, judges have already ruled that Google has a First Amendment right to allow its algorithms to decide what to display in the search results, without interference from outside parties.
Overall, it seems unlikely that the FTC will agree with Consumer Watchdog on this issue. But even if the agency is inclined to mandate a right to be forgotten, Google certainly would have strong arguments that the initiative violates the First Amendment.