Right to be Forgotten

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The right to be forgotten, also known as the right to erasure, is the right of an individual to erase parts of their online identity that include personal information which is no longer needed for its original processing purpose. It is generally accepted that there is a level of permanency to the internet. The right to be forgotten has two parts. The first part or the original intent of the right to be forgotten refers to the erasure of criminal records of convicts who have served their time and would like to erase the digital footprint of the criminal records. The second part of the right to be forgotten pertains to individuals who would like to remove personal information released through passive disclosure from the digital landscape. Both aspects of the right stem from the idea that individuals should be able to control whether or not their information exists online, and, therefore, available to the public eye.[1] The primary concern for these individuals is the persistence of information that is damaging to their online image. In the European Union (EU) and Argentina, this right has already been implemented with the creation of laws allowing citizens to request that their information be removed from Google's search results. A noticeable trend among individuals requesting to be forgotten online is the recognition that they have paid their time, and therefore should no longer be linked to certain information. The right to be forgotten highlights the tension between access to information and the right to privacy, as well as online anonymity problems.



Before the expansion of the internet and search engines such as Google and Yahoo, the right to be forgotten did not exist. In the Pre-internet era, data was not as easily accessible due to its physical nature and public records were difficult to obtain, which lead to "practical obscurity" of people's data. This means that the data was effectively protected due to the practical difficulty required to access or share information.[2] As more records became digitized and digital libraries for search engines expanded, data became more easily accessible, leading to the question of whether people should be able to scrub their records. In 2010, the landmark case of Google vs. Costeja made the right to be forgotten a real possibility.

Google v. Costeja

In March 2010, a resident of Spain named Mario Costeja González filed a complaint against La Vanguardia newspaper regarding articles published online in 1998.[3] When Googling his name, Costeja obtained links to two articles from La Vanguardia which contained information about his forced sale of property in order to pay off social security debts.[4] Costeja requested that La Vanguardia remove this information from their site and also requested that Google remove these links from their search results. He believed that the sensitive information about his debts was damaging to his reputation, even though those debts had previously been resolved and were no longer relevant to his current situation.[4]

In July of 2010, the Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) ruled that La Vanguardia legally had the right to publish this information about Costeja and therefore did not have to remove it.[3] However, the AEPD upheld the complaint which was directed at Google and ruled that the search engine had the obligation to remove the links to the newspaper articles from their indexes without necessarily erasing the data.

Following this ruling, Google took up claims against the Audiencia Nacional (National High Court of Spain) on the basis that Costeja didn't have the right to erase legally published material.[3] In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that search engines, such as Google, must respect the right to erasure. This landmark case resulted in a debate over the types of information that qualify for removal under the guidelines of the right to be forgotten. Ultimately, it lead to the publication of a form by Google which would allow citizens in the EU to request de-indexing of links that are no longer relevant to their original processing purpose.[5] Google currently handles these types of requests on a case by case basis and determines whether or not each request is eligible for the right to be forgotten.

Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber Case

In 1990, Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber were charged with the murder of a German actor.[6] Upon their release in 2007 and 2008, they demand their names to be removed from German publications' online contents, so that they can be forgotten and be accepted into the society once more. In 2009, the two filed a lawsuit against the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent company of Wikipedia, claiming that the site's inclusion of the details of their crime infringes on their privacy. [7]

This court case illustrates the difference between German and US courts' view on the issue of "right to be forgotten." While the German court allows the suppression of criminal's name in news accounts after they have received proper legal punishments, the United States Supreme Court was leaning more towards the idea that such information are protected by the First Amendment and therefore should not be suppressed by the government.[6]

Nikki Catsouras Case

On October 31st 2013, a young woman by the name of Nikki Catsouras crashed her father's sports car into a toll booth in Orange County, California. Nikki Catsouras was decapitated during the crash and it resulted in an incredibly gruesome scene. The California police followed traditional protocol and took photos of the scene to be used for potential evidence. However, the workers who took the photos of the scene decided to send the images of Nikki's mutilated body around to friends and family as a Halloween joke/prank. The photos of Nikki's body were then spread around the internet and eventually had been seen by millions of people, all primarily through Google searches.

Christos Catsouras, Nikki's father, found out a few weeks after the incident that the photos of his daughter's death had been spread throughout the internet and could be found on thousands of sites. Clearly enraged, Catsouras and the rest of his family attempted to get Google to get these images removed from these sites, or at least not link directly to these sites via their search engine. This case was looked at by Google and inevitably, they declined the request due lack of regulations on removing specific content such as this. Google did not want to have to get their hands dirty with a case like this and because there was no legal measures in place that could force Google to remove these photos and links, they simply did not. Christos Catsouras then tried to get the images copyrighted as a means to get them removed from the internet, but was unsuccessful in doing so. This case is a direct juxtaposition to the Costeja case above, and exemplifies the lack of legislation in America to develop a right to be forgotten [8]. The more unsettling information that is accessible to the general public, the more desensitized they will be become.


In Argentina, the lawyer Adolfo Martín Leguizamón Peña was filing similar cases for many celebrities against the search engines Google and Yahoo.[9] These celebrities demanded the removal of search results linked to photographs of themselves.

The most significant of the Argentinian cases, Da Cuhna v. Yahoo and Google, came about in 2009. In her lawsuit with the lower court, Virginia Da Cuhna of Argentina claimed that search results for her name resulted in links to pornographic websites which were using photographs of her without her permission. Judge Virginia Simari of Buenos Aires ruled in favor of Da Cuhna and claimed that she had a right to control her personal image online and Google and Yahoo were violating that right with their search results and therefore needed to remove links to pornographic sites which contained Da Cuhna's pictures.[9]

On appeal, a three-judge court reversed the lower courts decision on the grounds that the search engines could not be held accountable for linking to Da Cuhna's images as Da Cuhna had published them herself on her personal website. Although the judges reversed the decision, Judge Ana María R. Brilla de Serrat argued for the importance of the right to be forgotten along with the right to control information about oneself.[9] These cases helped to set a foundation for the right to be forgotten in Argentina.

United States of America

Currently, there are no legal frameworks in the United States protecting the right to be forgotten.

In 2014, a survey conducted by Benenson Strategy Group concluded that 88% of voters in the United States support the creation of a U.S. Law that would allow for citizens to request for the removal of personal information from search results.[10] Although such a large number of voters are in support of the creation of a right to be forgotten law in the U.S., the opposition claims that it would be a direct violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment prohibiting Congress and the states from creating laws abridging the freedom of expression. [11] Advocates against the right to be forgotten in the U.S. claim that allowing individuals to remove some of their personal information online violates the freedom of expression of the publisher of that information. However, as is recognized in the Google v. Costeja, La Vanguardia was not forced to remove the article as it was published lawfully; Google only had to remove the link to the article. Because of this, some believe that by removing things from Google, no infringements are being made against speech or press since the information is technically still published, just no longer searchable.

There are currently frameworks in place that allow U.S. citizens to protect themselves from an invasion of privacy. If an individual feels they have experienced a breach in privacy due to their personal information being divulged inappropriately, they can legally request to get that information removed. [12] However, these laws don't encompass the right to be forgotten in the United States as they fail to protect the removal of personal information that was lawfully published online.[12]

European Union

The legal right to be forgotten, which was established in the Google v. Costeja case, was codified into the EU's General Data Protection Regulations, which are a set of comprehensive data protection and privacy laws that apply to all EU citizens. Article 17 of GDPR provides EU consumers the right to be forgotten, and to have their data erased by data controllers upon request. Article 19 obligates controllers to notify consumers when data erasures have been conducted.

GDPR establishes a consent-based data framework, whereby consumers can withdraw their consent at their desire, and thereby initiate the data erasure process. A data controller, which is the party that is responsible for managing consent and access rights, are statutorily required to comply with erasure requests. If the data has been copied and circulated to other controllers and processors or made the data public, the primary controller is responsible for notifying other parties of the data erasure. Data erasure is also required when the data is no longer necessary in relation to the purpose of why the data was primarily collected, or if it was originally collected unlawfully. All of these provisions provide consumers, as data subjects, the right to have their data erased when they want, or when the data is no longer needed in regards to the intent of its original collection. [13]

GDPR provides certain exceptions to the right to be forgotten provisions, so as not to unnecessarily overburden data controllers and processors, and create a over-regulated and hostile business environment. If data erasure requests violate individual or organizational first amendment rights, such as the freedom of speech and freedom of the press rights; the erasure request can be denied. Newspaper and media organizations, for example, are not required under GDPR to remove names and information of individuals in online articles, just because individuals submit an erasure request under GDPR provisions. These provisions primarily pertain to social media platforms, digital advertising networks, and platforms that monetize and commoditize online personalizes data. [14]

Google Transparency Report

Google gathered and categorized data about all of the delisting requests which Europeans made from 2014-2017. The infographic below shows in detail the summary of the people who exercised their right to be forgotten as well as the information requested for delisting.[15]

Google Transparency Report

Google received 2.4 million requests from EU citizens for links to be removed from their indexes. A little less than half (43%) of the requested links were actually delisted by Google.[15] The categories of information that made up the majority of the delisting requests were professional information(24%), miscellaneous(21%), and name not found(16%).[15] On the other hand, the categories of information that were the least represented were sensitive personal information(2%), political(3%), and personal information(7%).[15] The four main types of websites that information was requested to be delisted from are directories(19%), news articles(18%), social media(12%), and government pages(3%).[15] Private individuals made up 89% of the removal requests while minors, corporate entities, and government politicians helped make up the majority of the remaining 11% of requests.[15]

Ethical Issues

According to Moor's Law: "As technological revolutions increase their social impact, ethical problems increase."[16] The right to be forgotten has arisen as an ethical issue due to the availability of information and ease of access that the internet has provided. While the European Union and Argentina have laws set in place protecting the right to be forgotten, the United States and many other countries have no such protections. These differences spark the debate over whether or not each country should create a law for the right to be forgotten. The main ethical issue concerning the right to be forgotten is the clash between the freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

Freedom of Expression

Advocates for the freedom of expression believe that subjects invoke the right to be forgotten simply when their content no longer suits their needs.[17] Furthermore, they claim that citizens who request the removal of information that was lawfully published by a website are directly violating the freedom of expression of that website. When a user removes information about themselves which could hurt their reputation, they are restricting the access of information for the public.[17]. Due to the case by case nature of the right to be forgotten, the line between the freedom of expression and right to privacy varies with each decision the search engine makes. Therefore, this makes the ethical dilemma more clouded as the various requests for delisting can be very different.


In opposition, advocates for the right to privacy believe that data divulged privately which is made public in some way should be removed immediately as the subject has the right to privacy of their information. Luciano Floridi defines the right to informational privacy as “the freedom from informational interference or intrusion, achieved through a restriction of facts about oneself that are unknown or unknowable.” [18] The ability to create and maintain meaningful relationships and benefit from these relationships is determined by our control over ourselves and access to information about ourselves[19]. Different types of relationships are affected by certain bits of information that are either shared or withheld in varying amounts or degrees. Invasions of privacy can hinder or inhibit the ability for a person to sustain these types of healthy emotional relationships. Particularly online, which is a space where many relationships are maintained. The loss of privacy can also take away someone’s ability to communicate information about themselves exclusively and selectively to someone else. If one’s personal information is being spread through a media outlet, one cannot control the information that is being portrayed about them. Thus they believe that the publication of this information is a violation of the right to privacy and therefore subject at hand should have the right to be forgotten without violating the freedom of expression.[20]

  • Children & the Right to be Forgotten - Many parents like to showcase their children's experiences and accomplishments on their social media profiles to keep friends and family updated. "Sharenting" is a term that has been coined to describe the intersection between a parent's right to share about their children and a child's right to control their digital footprint. The right to be forgotten recognizes that certain information pertaining to individuals loses its value overtime. This can help protect a child's privacy because someone may no longer identify with the information that was shared by their parents years prior and thus, ask Google to hide results from their search algorithms. [21] With the generation Z population having their childhoods recorded online for them, there is sure to be a shift in what is shared online in the future based on current experiences with the right to be forgotten.
  • Forcing Maturity Early - Because of the permanence of content online, everyone is forced to be careful not only of what they post themselves, but also conscious of what others post of them. A person's posts to their own profile are grouped with the posts that others tag them in. They barely have control over what information is attached to their name and compiles their digital footprint online. This forces everyone to mature earlier in life. Past generations could make mistakes in childhood and adolescence and learn from their experiences without many long term consequences. However, now with the internet and constant documentation of events through cellphones being readily available at all times, your actions growing up could effect you later on in life. A wild night out with friends that is captured on video and posted anywhere could prevent an individual from getting into college or landing a job later, even if they have matured significantly and don't partake in any kind of rambunctious behavior anymore. A basic background check could expose mistakes that had been committed much earlier and deter employers or admissions personnel from selecting an individual. Kids nowadays aren't able to be as carefree and live in the moment due to the threat that anything they do could be used against them years down the road. If they were granted the right to be forgotten to expunge any censored images or other content from their name at a younger age, we could protect some of the innocence of children in today's society.


Expungement[22] is the process of court ordered removal of criminal records from rehabilitated criminal profiles. It is valuable for allowing citizens to re-integrate into society, removing the blemishes that follow them around. It is significantly more difficult for an individual to find a job with a criminal record, and the expungement process benefits these people greatly while boosting the economy by increasing the work force. Expungement allows for rehabilitated individuals to be granted a true second chance within society, and it is concurrent with believers of the Right to be Forgotten.

Entailment and Personal Harm

Supporters of the Right to be Forgotten argue that it should be included under their right to privacy. That is, people should have the right to control what information exists about them on the internet and should have autonomy over the creation and deletion of such information.[23] The assumption is made that the right to privacy, or the right to control ones personal information, isn't complete without the right to be forgotten and therefore it is necessary to avoid psychological harm as well as potential physical harm. Without the right to be forgotten, psychological harm can be caused by the posting of "inappropriate" personal information and physical harm can be caused by sensitive information remaining online which can have physical impacts in daily lives.

No Content/No Responsibility

In opposition to the Right to be Forgotten, the no content/no responsibility argument is based on the idea that Google and other search engines simply provide links to other content and therefore should not be held responsible for the content within the sites which they link to.[23] Those in opposition believe that the right to be forgotten unreasonably forces these search engines to filter their content based on delisting requests. Therefore the argument follows that since search engines provide no content, they should have no responsibility in regulating their links and should not be held accountable for the deletion of such content.

Fatigue/No Rest

Similarly, the fatigue / no rest argument claims that it is impractical to handle all user removal link requests under the right to be forgotten, and it overloads search engines with removal requests making it extremely difficult for them to process them all in a timely manner. Similar to the no content/no responsibility argument, fatigue/no rest argument is based on the idea that search engines shouldn't be responsibly for reviewing all of the requests for delisting.[23]

Public Harm

The public harm argument makes the assumption that the public has the inherent "right to know" and deals heavily with the ethics surrounding censorship benefits and censorship harms.[23] Those supporting this argument claim that limiting access to personal data goes against the notion of "free flow of information", increasing the informational friction. Supporters also claim that the allowance of one type of censorship will create a chain reaction of other types of censorship in online atmospheres. Those in opposition to the right to be forgotten believe that this will restrict the public's "right to know" by removing links from search engines and thus cause overall harm to the general public as information is restricted. [23] This argument relates to Freedom of Information policies allowing individuals to request data from institutions, which may also struggle with a balance of transparency and privacy.

Internet Degradation

The internet degradation argument is centered around the idea that the internet's overall quality will become "degraded" due to the removal of these links.[23] Those in opposition believe that the right to be forgotten allows for the increased removal of information online and thus degradation of the internet. The argument follows that the quality of content on the internet that can be beneficial to many users would be impaired.


The international nature of the internet and search engines complicates the question of jurisdiction, and what laws and norms informational actors should follow. Luciano Floridi uses the phrase "My place, my rules v. your place, your rules" illustrate the role of geography in the ethics of the right to be forgotten[24]. When a search engine such as Google is used by millions of people in several different countries, it is difficult to regulate which information is restricted in which country, moreover, which search engine belongs to that particular country. For example, if an individual were to get a delink request approved to remove a specific piece of personal information in Europe, Google would remove the information from all European search engines. According to Floridi, this policy should be implemented as a more restricted, nation-based delinking policy[24]. He believes that by only removing the information from the country-specific Google search engine in which the request was made, the ability to have access to that specific piece of information in other countries is determined by the legislation of those other European countries. The "My place, my rules; Your place, your rules" saying is where this ideology stems from. Is it any one country's right to control the information that another country has access to? The argument of territoriality applies to the digital infosphere when considering the right to be forgotten.

Publisher's Rights

The publishers of legal information should also be considered. According to Luciano Floridi, argues that publishers should be heavily involved in the evaluation of the delinking process. This includes being notified when a person has requested to delink a piece of information that they legally published, being informed of the decision whether to allow the action of delinking or not, and appealing if they do not agree with this decision[24].

Censorship Concerns

There are some concerns with allowing countries to make decisions about implementing the Right to be Forgotten outside of their own respective countries. In 2015 the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL) argued that it was not enough to just remove the information of citizens from French websites as people are able to access websites from other countries using a VPN or a similar service. [25] Google argued that the law should reasonably be interpreted and countries should not be able to control the laws that govern this in other countries. Expunging information on topics on a global scale can turn into censorship when the information is of global interest. Being able to control the information available in other countries can and will most likely be misused especially when diplomacy becomes hostile.


Kathleen Wallace describes online anonymity as being the "non-coordinatability of traits in a given respect." [26] In essence online anonymity allows, rather prevents people from being able to use traits and locations to ascertain the identity of another person in a social environment. The benefits on online anonymity are that it allows people to be their authentic self, which is in the same vein as what Oliver Haimson discusses on being able to go by an identity which you may not be able to do in an in-person context. [27] However, the ethical issues that present themselves in online anonymity as well as in the Right to be Forgotten are attribution bias. [28] Although there are benefits to this notion, a concern is not being able to identify or find information on those who abuse this protection.

See Also

External Links


  1. Meg Leta Ambrose, and Jef Ausloos. “The Right to Be Forgotten Across the Pond.” Journal of Information Policy, vol. 3, 2013, pp. 1–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jinfopoli.3.2013.0001.
  2. "Privacy and Public Records" epic.org. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Google Spain SL and Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) and Mario Costeja González. Case C‑131/12. Judgment of the Court (Grand Chamber), 13 May 2014. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Thomas Macaulay, "What is the right to be forgotten and where did it come from?. 14 September 2017. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
  5. Ignacio Cofone, "Google v. Spain: A Right To Be Forgotten". "15 Chi.-Kent J. Int'l & Comp. L.", 2015. Retrieved 14 March 2019.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Schwartz, John., "Two German Killers Demanding Anonymity Sue Wikipedia’s Parent". The New York Times. Nov 12, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/us/13wiki.html
  7. Arthur, Charles., "Wikipedia sued by German killers in privacy claim". The Guardian. Nov 13, 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2009/nov/13/wikipedia-sued-privacy-claim
  8. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/29/solace-oblivion
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Edward L. Carter, "Argentina's Right to be Forgotten". Emory International Law Review Volume 27, 2013. Retrieved 13 March 2019.
  10. Mario Trujillo, "Public wants 'right to be forgotten' online". Benenson Strategy Group. Retrieved 28 March 2019.
  11. "U.S. Constitution-First Amendment". Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. Retrieved 28 March 2019.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Leticia Bode & Meg Leta Jones, "Ready to forget: American attitudes toward the right to be forgotten". The Information Society, 8 March 2017. Retrieved 28 March 2019.
  13. "GDPR: Right to be Forgotten," Intersoft Consulting, https://gdpr-info.eu/issues/right-to-be-forgotten/
  14. "Do we always have to delete personal data if a person asks?" European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/law-topic/data-protection/reform/rules-business-and-organisations/dealing-citizens/do-we-always-have-delete-personal-data-if-person-asks_en
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 Michee Smith, "Updating our “right to be forgotten” Transparency Report". Google Inc., 26 February 2018. Retrieved 14 March 2019.
  16. James H. Moor, "Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies". Ethics and Information Technology (2005) 7:111–119. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Muge Fazlioglu, "Forget me not: the clash of the right to be forgotten and freedom of expression on the Internet". International Data Privacy Law; Oxford Vol. 3, Iss. 3, (Aug 2013): 149 - 157. Retrieved 14 March 2019.
  18. Luciano Floridi, The 4th Revolution Chapter 5. Oxford University Press, 2014. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
  19. Rachels, J. 1975. ”Why Privacy Is Important”. http://public.callutheran.edu/~chenxi/Phil315_062.pdf
  20. Ivor Shapiro "How the “Right to be Forgotten” Challenges Journalistic Principles". Digital Journalism Volume 5, 2017. Retrieved 14 March 2019.
  21. Steinberg, S. 2018. How Europe’s ‘right to be forgotten’ could protect kids’ online privacy in the U.S.. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2018/07/11/how-europes-right-to-be-forgotten-could-protect-kids-online-privacy-in-the-u-s/?utm_term=.0f48dd39260e
  22. “Expungement Basics.” Findlaw, criminal.findlaw.com/expungement/expungement-basics.html.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 "The argument follows that the right to privacy is a "moral right" which is granted in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights." "Universal Declaration of Human Rights". United Nations, 10 December 1948. Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Should You Have The Right To Be Forgotten On Google? Nationally, Yes. Globally, No. "2014"
  25. Facebook.com/techpreviewindia. (2018, December 26). France tries to impose 'Right to be Forgotten' globally. Google fights. Retrieved from https://previewtech.net/right-to-be-forgotten-globally-google-cnil-france/
  26. "The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics" by Kenneth Einar Himma and Herman T. Tavani, Wiley-Interscience, May 27, 2008
  27. "Constructing and enforcing 'authentic' identity online: Facebook, real names, and non-normative identities" by Oliver L. Haimson and Anna Lauren Hoffman, 2014, First Monday, Volume 21, Number 6 - 6 June 2016
  28. "SI 410 2019 Week 6a Ethics of Anonymity.pptx" by Paul Conway, University of Michigan, 2019
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