When Criminals Try to Get a Clean Slate… Google Was Asked to Remove 2.4 Million URLs From Search Results

Rafia Shaikh
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The European Court of Justice had ruled back in 2014 that EU citizens have the right to ask search engines to remove certain information about them from search results. Google has today revealed in its transparency report that the search giant has been asked to remove nearly 2.5 million URLs.

Google writes that it has to comply with these requests if the links in question are "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive," adding that the company delists URLs from all of its European search results, "results for users in France, Germany, Spain, etc. - and use geolocation signals to restrict access to the URL from the country of the requester."

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Back in 2015, Google's David Drummond had said that this law was being used by "former politicians wanting posts removed that criticize their policies in office; serious, violent criminals asking for articles about their crimes to be deleted; bad reviews for professionals like architects and teachers; comments that people have written themselves (and now regret)."

Since May 29, 2014, the company reveals, it has received 654,876 requests to delist 2,437,271 URLs. However, it is only required to follow requests that meet the above criteria and has so far delisted 43.3% of all requested URLs.

How does Google evaluate what to delist

After receiving a request, the tech giant assigns one reviewer to the case who then decides if the URL should indeed be delisted. "A few common material factors involved in decisions not to delist pages include the existence of alternative solutions, technical reasons, or duplicate URLs," the company wrote.

We may also determine that the page contains information which is strongly in the public interest. Determining whether content is in the public interest is complex and may mean considering many diverse factors, including - but not limited to - whether the content relates to the requester’s professional life, a past crime, political office, position in public life, or whether the content is self-authored content, consists of government documents, or is journalistic in nature.

This process, however, doesn't always go smoothly. Since Google evidently says no to over half of these requests, people often don't like to hear that. Then there are those who try to trick the search giant with forged documents.

Examples of when Google almost fell for criminals' tricks

When giving an example, the company highlighted a case when it received a request to "delist dozens of recent, reputable news articles regarding the conviction of an individual for rape, including video footage of the victim." The company refused to delist the articles, however, it was then reached out by the Italian Data Protection Authority to explain its decision. The watchdog apparently agreed with Google's decision to not delist the articles given their recency and the severity of the crime.

In another case of when Google denied to comply with the request, the company mentions a British man who was convicted of benefits fraud and asked the search giant to delist nearly 300 articles related to the conviction. He offered a document suggesting that he was later found innocent of the crime.

Google delisted all the requested 239 URLs. However, the requester then submitted another request to delist several other pages that were related to a different conviction for forging documents. "After re-reviewing the original document he submitted as proof of his innocence in the benefits case, we discovered that it was a forgery," the company wrote. "We reinstated all of the URLs we had previously delisted."

Google was also reached out by a priest who was convicted for possession of child sexual abuse imagery. Google denied to remove articles reporting on his sentence and banishment from the church.

Google explains that the European privacy law has had an impact on information available for certain queries. While the law is seen as potentially the only remedy for victims of sexual crimes, this data shows an interesting picture of how criminals have tried to get a clean slate through this law that otherwise has also helped minors and victims. More details and several other examples are available over at Google.

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