invisible businessman with hat

The Right to Be Invisible: The EU and Digital History

Google’s recent deletion of unflattering data about influential figures at the behest of an EU court has fueled debate about lawmakers’ actual goal: a consumer  “right to erasure.”


EU Court: The Right to Be Forgotten is Just the Beginning

Google received approximately 70,000 requests for information deletion since a May 2014 ruling  by the Court of European Justice that allowed anyone to request removal of any personal data including their name from Google’s organic search results in Europe.

This law, writes the Court,  is the first step in a long-term program designed to expand current data protection laws- based on existing European Parliament directives- to include an enhanced “right to erasure.” This right already exists in current law, according to the Court, but it is being reinterpreted in order to give the law “teeth” in regards to American companies like Google.

Regarding search engines or tech companies using personal data (termed “controllers”) the Court writes:

“The European Parliament (put forth) in its compromise text, an obligation for the controller (of data) to ensure an erasure of (personal) data.”

The Meaning of Erasure: Fines and Data Destruction

The new interpretation of the existing 1995 Data Protection Act states that search engines or tech companies would be fined up to “2 percent of worldwide annual turnover” for noncompliance.

The right to erasure ostensibly extends as a global protection for Europeans, held to include copies of data initially found online or files located on private servers. 

Right to Erasure: Europe’s Level Playing Field

Embattled politicians, those involved in criminal cases and controversial leaders of religious groups, for example, can attack searchable references to critical op-ed pieces or even articles with unflattering user comments using present law.

Some of the most powerful media companies, like the BBC, have been impacted as articles and even links to research have been suddenly deleted from the engine, some after only a brief notice from Google . Now, other search engines like Bing are following suit in offering their compliance to the European court ruling.

A New World: Data Invisibility and Companies as People

The controversy lies in the fact that these instances are not removals of data based on an assumption of slander or the like. Rather, the new law codifies a person’s presumptive right to evaporate as an online entity from any public search engine, regardless of where the reference appears.

According to privacy analysts,  these protections would also extend to corporations in Austria, Italy and Switzerland, although an individual connected to a company, such as a fired CEO, retains this right in any nation.

Removal is Based on Request, Not Validity

Examples include:

  • The Church of Scientology, for example, successfully had links to an article about the church in Spiegel that mentioned a specific member removed from Google.
  • A politician had an article which was published in the Guardian removed from Google search which stated that he had failed to mention his involvement in a $1.6 million fraud trial in his election statement.
  • An airline accused of racism by an Algerian-born job candidate successfully had the article, which detailed how the applicant received a job offer after using a fake English-sounding name, removed from search results.
  • Google was forced to delete an article which reported that a Merrill Lynch executive who presided over the company as it struggled financially left with a $165 million “golden parachute.”

Whose History Is it Anyway?

The law’s most controversial aspect is that, as analysts have stated, Google is the sole means many consumers use for finding news and conducting research. Censoring search results, in this manner, is tantamount to rewriting history say some journalists.


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Carla Rover