In-depth | Privacy rights

Internet — forget me!

By - 21.02.2017

How to stop search engines displaying embarrassing results about you.

It is said that the internet never forgets. That’s mainly because its memory is stored on the hard drives of millions of web servers around the world; rooms filled with ordinary computers, solely purposed to store its data.

Ten years ago, computer ownership in Kosovo was rare. Now every house has one or more, with around 80 percent of the population having access to the internet. In June 2016, the country had 860,000 registered Facebook users. The sheer speed with which the internet has become a common commodity, has left many oblivious to the long lasting effects posts on the internet can have.

Whenever you search his name, that picture of him with a broad smile and a circumcised penis keeps coming up.

For example, not long ago, a picture of a young boy, smiling broadly, while naked on his bed and freshly circumcised was posted on Facebook. Friends and family were commenting and sending him good wishes. After all, the circumcision of boys is an important celebration for Kosovo’s Muslim families.

The picture was copied and shared, and then mocked and criticized by the large Facebook community. Now, hypothetically speaking, imagine one day that boy grows up, and on his 18th birthday, decides that he has had enough. He wants a girlfriend, and a life without ridicule. People are ready to forget, but the internet is not. Whenever you search his name, that picture of him with a broad smile and a circumcised penis keeps coming up.

The only way to move forward is to either change his name, or undertake the impossible task of deleting that picture, which by now has been saved on hundreds of web servers across the globe. The prospect of a future normal life does look kind of bleak for him, but luckily others have taken measures for cases such as these.

Gonzalez vs. Google

In 1998, a Spanish businessman, Mario Costeja Gonzalez was having financial difficulties. In an attempt to solve them, he put one of his properties up for auction. The details were covered by a newspaper, who also published them online. Everything went fine, except for one small detail. For years afterwards, whenever you searched his name, that auction came up as a result, casting a bad shadow over Mr Gonzalez’s business skills.

In 2010, Gonzalez demanded that it be deleted from Google’s search results, and took Google Spain to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. In May 2014, the court ruled in his favor, based on a 1995 Data Protection Directive, which was based on a personal data protection concept called ‘the right to be forgotten.’

The concept arose as the result of an individual’s desire to ‘determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.’ In other words, their right not to be haunted by an embarrassing or harmful deed in their past.

The court ruled that Google and other search engines operating within the EU, would be obliged to remove information about individuals which was deemed to be inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive.

How to hide from your search results

In 2014, you still needed a lawyer to do that. However, after the precedent from the Gonzalez case was set, Google created an automated request formula, based on data protection laws in Europe.

Since Kosovo is not in the European Union, its citizens can not call on “the right to be forgotten” ruling, but they can still request information to be removed from Google’s search engine on general principle. Microsoft’s search engine Bing also provides the possibility to remove harmful content here.

But, before you start the process of removing information about you from search results, you should first know some things:

The right to erasure is not a license for removing content about you that you do not like.

1. You are only removing search results that a Google search displays, not the physical information which might be stored on a website, or other web servers. People can still find that information by using other search engines. Still, with Google and Bing being the two largest search engines, it will minimize the damage.  

2. If you want to physically remove that specific information, first see if it is on one of the pages that you own, such as a website, social media, or a webpage of the company where you work. If not, then the right course of action would be to contact the owners of the websites where the data which you want to be deleted is being stored, ask politely and hope for the best.

3. Not everything can be removed. The right to erasure is not a license for removing content about you that you do not like. Freedom of speech and the media, and the right to information are strictly upheld, and there are clear limits as to what can be removed.

4. Google takes into account if the request for content removal is based on applicable laws.

5. Child sexual abuse imagery, bank account or credit card numbers, nude or sexually explicit images that were uploaded or shared without your consent, and images of signatures are removed without much scrutiny. However other data that you may request to be removed will go through many assessments, such as your role in society, whether you are a public figure or not, the sensitivity of the data to your personal life and the interest of the public in having that information.

Online vendettas

It’s not just embarrassing Facebook posts that a Google search can turn up. In Kosovo in recent times, examples have appeared in media portals of straight slander, half-truths, and incorrect or inadequate information. It can be frightening to think that anyone with access to online media, that calls himself a journalist or some sort of writer, can attack someone without having verified information.

Kosovo has a press code, and the body of the Press Council has a board that can evaluate contentious articles, and ask for removals, clarifications, or the publication of further material. However, as the Council does not have executive powers, nor can they issue fines, their presence has not been enough to deter media portals from publishing some outrageous articles.

On the first page of Google search results for Kosovar judge Makifete Saliuka is a 2015 story from Kosova Sot, questioning her appointment to the Kosovo Judicial Council. Saliuka and Kosova Sot have something of a history. In 2010, the Kosovo Press Council upheld a complaint from Saliuka about the reporting of a trial over which she presided. A search on Kosova Sot’s website returns 31 stories in which the judge is mentioned, most of which are unflattering. It seems that Kosova Sot can not forget Saliuka, and neither does the internet.

Should we always forgive and forget?

The European Court of Justice’s 2014 ruling has not gone without criticism and concerns from free speech advocates. In the case of the Spanish businessman, it was counter-argued that the public would benefit from knowing that a particular person has had a debt issue, especially if they were thinking of doing business with him.

Well known campaigners for freedom of expression, Index on Censorship, have labeled the ruling as rushed. Their main point of contention was the outsourcing of a responsibility (that Index on Censorship felt should have been delegated to an accountable public body) to a corporate organization who are under no obligation to protect human rights or act in the public interest. They argue that the ruling enables corporations to be arbiters of public information, deciding about what is “irrelevant and inappropriate.”

The right to be forgotten has also raised some problematic incidents. There was the case of an ex-politician seeking re-election, who asked for links to an article which details his behaviour in office to be removed. There was also the case of a convicted pedophile, who demanded links to pages with his name on it be erased.

Then there was the pianist, Dejan Lazic, who did not like a review about him in the Washington Post. He called upon the “right to be forgotten” on the basis that the critique was “defamatory, mean-spirited, opinionated, offensive and simply irrelevant for the arts.”

Despite criticism and concern about curbing our freedom of speech and media, still the “right to be forgotten” has given many people the possibility for a fresh start. It is preventing revenge porn, and other forms of individual shaming. Hypothetically, the next time our protagonist will be smiling broadly, naked and showing his penis, he will be in a more intimate setting, hopefully with a public audience of only one.K

Featured image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.