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More Than A Quarter-Million Ask Google To Be Forgotten



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Four-hundred-and-fifty-three.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Twenty-five.


Time for some number crunching from our data expert Mona Chalabi from fivethirtyeight.com. She has given us this number of the week.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Two-hundred-and-eighty-thousand.

MARTIN: That is the total number of requests people have made to Google asking the search engine to remove Web pages about them from its searches. The company gets to decide whether to approve or deny each individual request. That decision-making process has come under scrutiny this past week. Here to explain is Mona Chalabi. Hey, Mona.


MARTIN: Let's start with a very basic question first, Mona. What exactly is it that people are asking Google to do, remove Web pages in which they're mentioned?

CHALABI: Kind of. So what they want to do is remove evidence of themselves online because, a reminded here, everything you do online stays online. And some people basically don't like that. So they want to erase their digital footprint. In Europe, people have the right to make that kind of request because back in May, 2014, the European Court of Justice - that's the highest court in the European Union - they ruled that an Internet search engine has to consider requests from individuals to remove links resulting from a search on their name. The ruling basically supported what's known as the right to be forgotten. So since that ruling back in May, over 280,000 requests have been made to Google.

MARTIN: And are all those requests - 280,000 - those are all coming from Europe because we can't do that here in the states, right?

CHALABI: So basically, if you're not happy about what you see when you Google Rachel Martin, for now there's not much you can do about it besides speaking to the people that produced that original content.

MARTIN: All right. So this original European Court ruling came down in 2014. So why is this issue coming up now?

CHALABI: Because it was this week that the British newspaper The Guardian found data that Google never intended to publish. And that data, according to a Guardian analysis, shows that some requests are coming from celebrities and politicians, as you probably might expect...

MARTIN: Because they're really famous, and a lot of their biography is online. And maybe they don't like that.

CHALABI: Exactly - sort of high-profile individuals who want to kind of manage their public image, if you like. But according to The Guardian, 95 percent of the requests that are being made to Google have come from regular members of the public.

MARTIN: All right, so can you give me an example of what a request might look like?

CHALABI: Sure. Google actually published several anecdotes on their site to illustrate the decisions that they're making. So in Sweden, for example, there was a woman who wanted to remove pages from search results that showed her home address. And Google accepted that one. In Hungary, by contrast, a high-ranking public official requested the articles that had been written about a really old criminal conviction be removed by Google. And Google actually turned down that request. Just to be clear, these aren't requests about removing the pages themselves from the Internet. They're requests to stop them from showing up in a Google search. And I guess the hope is that by them not appearing in Google, they're a lot harder to find. And they're kind of invisible.

MARTIN: OK. So is there any data that shows how often Google grants these requests?

CHALABI: Yeah. This information was also in the Google data that The Guardian retrieved and published this week. So as of March, 46 percent of all requests had been granted. Thirty-eight percent had been rejected. And the others were still pending a decision. But success also seems to kind of depend on the type of request made. So you can see the categories that Google have used. And removal requests that were marked with the label political, public figure, serious crime or child protection all had much higher rejection rates.

MARTIN: So we've been talking about all these requests that are coming from Europeans. What about privacy rights here in the U.S.? Is there any movement afoot to allow American users of Google the same right?

CHALABI: There's absolutely a debate about this in the United States. But for the moment, citizens can't make the same request to Google that their European counterparts can. For U.S. companies, thought, it's a different story altogether. So so far, we can see that Google has received requests relating to copyright issues for about 41 million URLs. Now, the data isn't actually split up by country, but some of those are obviously American companies. Just by scanning the first two pages of requests, I can see Microsoft. I can also see Universal Music being listed there. And it's not just the private sector either. Google have received about 16,000 requests from courts and government agencies around the world to remove information from Google products since December, 2009. Two-thousand-two-hundred of those 16,000 requests came from the USA. That's the third-highest number of requests of any country in the world after Turkey and Brazil. Now, unfortunately, the really, really juicy stuff - I can't actually tell you what exactly governments are requesting to be removed. In fact, I can't tell you anything really beyond those numbers because that's all that gets published in Google's transparency report. And it also wasn't part of what The Guardian managed to kind of access earlier on this week.

MARTIN: Mona Chalabi of fivethirtyeight.com. Thanks so much, Mona.

CHALABI: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.