Open Letter to Google From 80 Internet Scholars: Release RTBF Compliance Data

Ellen P. Goodman
11 min readMay 14, 2015

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13 May 2015

What We Seek

Aggregate data about how Google is responding to the >250,000 requests to delist links thought to contravene data protection from name search results. We should know if the anecdotal evidence of Google’s process is representative: What sort of information typically gets delisted (e.g., personal health) and what sort typically does not (e.g., about a public figure), in what proportions and in what countries?

Why It’s Important

Google and other search engines have been enlisted to make decisions about the proper balance between personal privacy and access to information. The vast majority of these decisions face no public scrutiny, though they shape public discourse. What’s more, the values at work in this process will/should inform information policy around the world. A fact-free debate about the RTBF is in no one’s interest.

Why Google

Google is not the only search engine, but no other private entity or Data Protection Authority has processed anywhere near the same number of requests (most have dealt with several hundred at most). Google has by far the best data on the kinds of requests being made, the most developed guidelines for handling them, and the most say in balancing informational privacy with access in search. We address this letter to Google, but the request goes out to all search engines subject to the ruling.

One year ago, the European Court of Justice, in Google Spain v AEPD and Mario Costeja González, determined that Google and other search engines must respond to users’ requests under EU data protection law concerning search results on queries of their names. This has become known as the Right to Be Forgotten (RTBF) ruling. The undersigned have a range of views about the merits of the ruling. Some think it rightfully vindicates individual data protection/privacy interests. Others think it unduly burdens freedom of expression and information retrieval. Many think it depends on the facts.

We all believe that implementation of the ruling should be much more transparent for at least two reasons: (1) the public should be able to find out how digital platforms exercise their tremendous power over readily accessible information; and (2) implementation of the ruling will affect the future of the RTBF in Europe and elsewhere, and will more generally inform global efforts to accommodate privacy rights with other interests in data flows.

Google reports that it has received over 250,000 individual requests concerning one million URLs in the past year. It also reports that it has delisted from name search results just over 40% of the URLs that it has reviewed. In various venues, Google has shared some 40 examples of delisting requests granted and denied (including 22 examples on its website), and it has revealed the top sources of material requested to be delisted (amounting to less than 8% of total candidate URLs). Most of the examples surfaced more than six months ago, with minimal transparency since then. While Google’s decisions will seem reasonable enough to most, in the absence of real information about how representative these are, the arguments about the validity and application of the RTBF are impossible to evaluate with rigour.

Beyond anecdote, we know very little about what kind and quantity of information is being delisted from search results, what sources are being delisted and on what scale, what kinds of requests fail and in what proportion, and what are Google’s guidelines in striking the balance between individual privacy and freedom of expression interests.

The RTBF ruling addresses the delisting of links to personal information that is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive for the purposes of data processing,” and which holds no public interest. Both opponents and supporters of the RTBF are concerned about overreach. Because there is no formal involvement of original sources or public representatives in the decision-making process, there can be only incidental challenges to information that is delisted, and few safeguards for the public interest in information access. Data protection authorities seem content to rely on search engines’ application of the ruling’s balancing test, citing low appeal rates as evidence that the balance is being appropriately struck. Of course, this statistic reveals no such thing. So the sides do battle in a data vacuum, with little understanding of the facts — facts that could assist in developing reasonable solutions.

Peter Fleischer, Google Global Privacy Counsel, reportedly told the 5th European Data Protection Days on May 4 that, “Over time, we are building a rich program of jurisprudence on the [RTBF] decision.” (Bhatti, Bloomberg, May 6). It is a jurisprudence built in the dark. For example, Mr. Fleischer is quoted as saying that the RTBF is “about true and legal content online, not defamation.” This is an interpretation of the scope and meaning of the ruling that deserves much greater elaboration, substantiation, and discussion.

We are not the only ones who want more transparency. Google’s own Advisory Council on the RTBF in February 2015 recommended more transparency, as did the Article 29 Working Party in November 2014. Both recommended that data controllers should be as transparent as possible by providing anonymised and aggregated statistics as well as the process and criteria used in delisting decisions. The benefits of such transparency extend to those who request that links be delisted, those who might make such requests, those who produce content that is or might be delisted, and the wider public who might or do access such material. Beyond this, transparency eases the burden on search engines by helping to shape implementation guidelines and revealing aspects of the governing legal framework that require clarification.

Naturally, there is some tension between transparency and the very privacy protection that the RTBF is meant to advance. The revelations that Google has made so far show that there is a way to steer clear of disclosure dangers. Indeed, the aggregate information that we seek threatens privacy far less than the scrubbed anecdotes that Google has already released, or the notifications that it is giving to webmasters registered with Google webmaster tools. The requested data is divorced from individual circumstances and requests. Here is what we think, at a minimum, should be disclosed:

  1. Categories of RTBF requests/requesters that are excluded or presumptively excluded (e.g., alleged defamation, public figures) and how those categories are defined and assessed.
  2. Categories of RTBF requests/requesters that are accepted or presumptively accepted (e.g., health information, address or telephone number, intimate information, information older than a certain time) and how those categories are defined and assessed.
  3. Proportion of requests and successful delistings (in each case by % of requests and URLs) that concern categories including (taken from Google anecdotes): (a) victims of crime or tragedy; (b) health information; (c) address or telephone number; (d) intimate information or photos; (e) people incidentally mentioned in a news story; (f) information about subjects who are minors; (g) accusations for which the claimant was subsequently exonerated, acquitted, or not charged; and (h) political opinions no longer held.
  4. Breakdown of overall requests (by % of requests and URLs, each according to nation of origin) according to the WP29 Guidelines categories. To the extent that Google uses different categories, such as past crimes or sex life, a breakdown by those categories. Where requests fall into multiple categories, that complexity too can be reflected in the data.
  5. Reasons for denial of delisting (by % of requests and URLs, each according to nation of origin). Where a decision rests on multiple grounds, that complexity too can be reflected in the data.
  6. Reasons for grant of delisting (by % of requests and URLs, each according to nation of origin). As above, multi-factored decisions can be reflected in the data.
  7. Categories of public figures denied delisting (e.g., public official, entertainer), including whether a Wikipedia presence is being used as a general proxy for status as a public figure.
  8. Source (e.g., professional media, social media, official public records) of material for delisted URLs by % and nation of origin (with top 5–10 sources of URLs in each category).
  9. Proportion of overall requests and successful delistings (each by % of requests and URLs, and with respect to both, according to nation of origin) concerning information first made available by the requestor (and, if so, (a) whether the information was posted directly by the requestor or by a third party, and (b) whether it is still within the requestor’s control, such as on his/her own Facebook page).
  10. Proportion of requests (by % of requests and URLs) where the information is targeted to the requester’s own geographic location (e.g., a Spanish newspaper reporting on a Spanish person about a Spanish auction).
  11. Proportion of searches for delisted pages that actually involve the requester’s name (perhaps in the form of % of delisted URLs that garnered certain threshold percentages of traffic from name searches).
  12. Proportion of delistings (by % of requests and URLs, each according to nation of origin) for which the original publisher or the relevant data protection authority participated in the decision.
  13. Specification of (a) types of webmasters that are not notified by default (e.g., malicious porn sites); (b) proportion of delistings (by % of requests and URLs) where the webmaster additionally removes information or applies robots.txt at source; and (c) proportion of delistings (by % of requests and URLs) where the webmaster lodges an objection.

As of now, only about 1% of requesters denied delisting are appealing those decisions to national Data Protection Authorities. Webmasters are notified in more than a quarter of delisting cases (Bloomberg, May 6). They can appeal the decision to Google, and there is evidence that Google may revise its decision. In the remainder of cases, the entire process is silent and opaque, with very little public process or understanding of delisting.

The ruling effectively enlisted Google into partnership with European states in striking a balance between individual privacy and public discourse interests. The public deserves to know how the governing jurisprudence is developing. We hope that Google, and all search engines subject to the ruling, will open up.

Jef Ausloos
KU Leuven, ICRI/CIR — iMinds

Paul Bernal
Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law
UEA School of Law

Eduardo Bertoni
Global Clinical Professor. New York University School of Law
Director of the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information -CELE-
Palermo University School of Law

Reuben Binns
University of Southampton

Michael D. Birnhack
Professor of Law
Tel-Aviv University, Faculty of Law

Eerke Boiten
Director of Cyber Security Centre
University of Kent

Oren Bracha
Howrey LLP and Arnold, White & Durkee Centennial Professor
University of Texas School of Law

George Brock
Professor of Journalism
City University London

Sally Broughton Micova
LSE Fellow & Acting Director, LSE Media Policy Project
London School of Economics and Political Science

Ian Brown
Professor of Information Security and Privacy
University of Oxford, Oxford Internet Institute

Robin Callender Smith
Professorial Fellow in Media Law, Centre for Commercial Law Studies
Queen Mary University of London

Caroline Calomme
MJur candidate
University of Oxford

Ignacio Cofone
Erasmus University Rotterdam

Julie E. Cohen
Mark Claster Mamolen Professor of Law & Technology
Georgetown Law

Ray Corrigan
Senior Lecturer in Maths, Computing and Technology
Open University

Jon Crowcroft
Marconi Professor of Communications Systems
University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory

Angela Daly
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology
Research Associate, Tilburg University — TILT

Richard Danbury
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
University of Cambridge, Faculty of Law

Leonhard Dobusch
Assistant Professor on Organization Theory
Freie Universitaet Berlin

Lilian Edwards
Professor of Internet Law
University of Strathclyde

Niva Elkin-Koren
Professor of Law
University of Haifa

David Erdos
University Lecturer in Law and the Open Society
University of Cambridge, Faculty of Law

Gordon Fletcher
Senior Lecturer in Information Systems
University of Salford

Michelle Frasher
Non-resident Visiting Scholar, Fulbright-Schuman Scholar
University of Illinois, European Union Center

Brett M. Frischmann
Professor of Law
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

Martha Garcia-Murillo
Professor of Information Studies
Syracuse University

David Glance
Director, UWA Centre for Software Practice
University of Western Australia

Ellen P. Goodman
Professor of Law
Rutgers University

Andres Guadamuz
Senior Lecturer in IP Law
University of Sussex

Edina Harbinja
Law Lecturer
University of Hertfordshire

Woodrow Hartzog
Associate Professor, Samford University, Cumberland School of Law
Affiliate Scholar, Stanford Law School, Center for Internet & Society

Andrew Hoskins
University of Glasgow

Martin Husovec
Legal Advisor, European Information Society Institute
Affiliate Scholar, Stanford Law School, Center for Internet & Society

Agnieszka Janczuk-Gorywoda
Assistant Professor
Tilburg University — TILEC

Lorena Jaume-Palasí
PhD candidate and Lecturer
Ludwig Maximilians University

Bert-Jaap Koops
Professor of Regulation and Technology
Tilburg University — TILT

Paulan Korenhof
Tilburg University — TILT

Aleksandra Kuczerawy
KU Leuven, ICRI/CIR — iMinds

Stefan Kulk
Utrecht University

Rebekah Larsen
MPhil candidate
University of Cambridge, Judge Business School

David S. Levine
Associate Professor, Elon University School of Law
Visiting Research Collaborator, Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy
Affiliate Scholar, Stanford Law School, Center for Internet & Society

Michael P. Lynch
Professor of Philosophy and Director, Humanities Institute
University of Connecticut

Orla Lynskey
Assistant Professor of Law and Warden, Sidney Webb House
London School of Economics and Political Science

Daniel Lyons
Associate Professor of Law
Boston College Law School

Ian MacInnes
Associate Professor, School of Information Studies
Syracuse University

Robin Mansell
Professor, Department of Media and Communications
London School of Economics and Political Science

Alan McKenna
University of Kent Law School

Shane McNamee
Research Assistant, Research Centre for Consumer Law
University of Bayreuth

Maura Migliore
LL.M. candidate, Centre for Commercial Law Studies
Queen Mary University of London

Christian Moeller
Internet Policy Observatory, Center for Global Communication Studies, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
University of Applied Sciences Kiel

Maria Helen Murphy
Lecturer in Law
Maynooth University

Andrew Murray
Professor of Law
London School of Economics and Political Science

John Naughton
Professor, Wolfson College
University of Cambridge

Abraham Newman
Associate Professor, School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University

Kieron O’Hara
Senior Research Fellow, Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton

Marion Oswald
Senior Fellow, Head of the Centre for Information Rights
University of Winchester

Pablo A. Palazzi
Professor of Law
San Andres University

Frank Pasquale
Professor of Law
University of Maryland Carey School of Law

Richard J. Peltz-Steele
University of Massachusetts Law School

Julia Powles
University of Cambridge — Faculty of Law

Artemi Rallo
Constitutional Law Professor and Former Director, Spanish Data Protection Agency
Jaume I University

Giovanni Sartor
Professor of Legal Informatics and Legal Theory
European University Institute

Evan Selinger
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Rochester Institute of Technology

Sophie Stalla-Bourdillon
Associate Professor in IT law
University of Southampton

Konstantinos Stylianou
Fellow, Centre for Technology and Society
FGV Direito Rio

Dan Jerker B. Svantesson
Bond University Faculty of Law

Damian Tambini
Research Director and Director of the Media Policy Project
London School of Economics and Political Science

Judith Townend
Director, Centre for Law and Information Policy
Institute of Advanced Legal Studies

Alexander Tsesis
Professor of Law
Loyola University School of Law

Siva Vaidhyanathan
Robertson Professor, Department of Media Studies
University of Virginia

Peggy Valcke
Professor of Law, Head of Research
KU Leuven — iMinds

Alfonso Valero
Principal Lecturer, College of Business Law & Social Sciences
Nottingham Law School

Brendan Van Alsenoy
KU Leuven, ICRI/CIR — iMinds

Joris van Hoboken
Research Fellow
New York University School of Law

Asma Vranaki
Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for Commercial Law Studies
Queen Mary University of London

Kevin Werbach
Associate Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics
University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School

Abby Whitmarsh
Web Science Researcher
University of Southampton

Tijmen Wisman
PhD candidate and Lecturer
VU University Amsterdam

Lorna Woods
Professor of Internet Law
University of Essex

Nicolo Zingales
Assistant Professor
Tilburg University — TILEC



Ellen P. Goodman

Distinguished Professor, Rutgers Law. Information law, media, algorithmic governance, smart cities, free speech, disclosure, green marketing