Understanding ‘the right to be forgotten’

Here's a look at what Google did and didn't remove
January 5, 2015

In May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that individuals have a right to request that personal information be removed from online search results. The so-called “right to be forgotten” mainly affects Google, the dominant search engine in Europe, whose job it is to evaluate the requests.

While the rule has been sharply criticized, not least by Google, its reach is limited. For now, it only applies to Google Europe domains. And information that is clearly in the public interest, or related to public figures, is not supposed to be subject to removal. The person making the request must prove his identity and persuasively argue that the information is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” Even then, the links will only fail to appear when someone searches for that person’s name. So, for instance, if you ever filed for bankruptcy, a general search about bankruptcy in your community would likely still turn up your own case, even if you had successfully “been forgotten” under this ruling.

Last summer, Google began notifying media outlets when links to their sites are removed, but not revealing who made request or why, which, ironically, has prompted new coverage of the policy that often includes links to the affected content. In other words, be careful what you ask for. Here’s a sampling of links that have either been removed, or that someone has attempted to have removed.

Successful (sort of) requests

• Stories from newspaper La Vanguardia about Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish citizen who had real estate seized for nonpayment of social-security taxes.

• A German newspaper article about a rape.

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• Three 2010 articles from The Guardian about former Scottish Premier League referee Dougie McDonald, who lied about his reasons for granting a penalty in a match and was forced to resign. Following complaints (from The Guardian and others) that the information was in the public interest, Google restored the links.

• Blog posts by BBC economics editor Robert Peston about how former Merrill Lynch CEO Stanley O’Neal was forced out. Peston publicly questioned the deletion, arguing that O’Neal, the only person named in the article, should not be allowed to hide information relevant to the public. Google then clarified that the request had been made by someone named in the comments section.

• A routine 1998 New York Times feature about a theater production of “Villa Villa.”

• A 2011 story in the Telegraph about Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik’s 1500-page “war plan.”

Rejected (sort of) requests

• A 2010 Washington Post concert review of Croatian pianist Dejan Lazic, whose performance was deemed “cartoon-like.”

• Four articles about “embarrassing content” posted to the internet by an English media professional, who filed a request for removal with Google.

Hard numbers


total link-removal requests Google has received from European citizens under the right to be forgotten


percentage of evaluated link-removal requests that were denied by Google


links removed to Facebook, the domain most affected by the rule


the highest percentage of Google-denied requests from one country: Bulgaria


the highest percentage of granted requests from one country: Austria

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.