Privacy group files FTC complaint to push Google to extend right to be forgotten to US

Google’s refusal to implement the EU’s controversial right to be forgotten rules in the U.S. amounts to an unfair and deceptive business practice, a frequent critic of the search engine giant said.

Consumer Watchdog will file a complaint against Google with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Tuesday, said John Simpson, director of the group’s Privacy Project. The complaint will ask the FTC to rule that Google, by declining to delete search engine links on request from U.S. residents, is an unfair business practice that violates the U.S. FTC Act.

Arguing that the right to be forgotten is an “important privacy option,” Consumer Watchdog’s complaint will say that although Google claims to be concerned about users’ privacy, it doesn’t offer people in the U.S. “the ability to make such a basic request.”

“Describing yourself as championing users’ privacy and not offering a key privacy tool—indeed one offered all across Europe—is deceptive behavior,” the document reads.

Unfair business practices are defined in the FTC Act as those that cause substantial injury to consumers that they cannot reasonably avoid themselves and that are not outweighed by other benefits.

Before the Internet, it was difficult to track down records of the foolish things people did when they were young, Simpson said.

“This reality that our youthful indiscretions and embarrassments and other matters no longer relevant slipped from the general public’s consciousness is privacy by obscurity,” he said by email. “The Digital Age has ended that. Everything—all our digital footprints—are instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device.”

A Google representative didn’t respond to a request for comment on bringing the right to be forgotten to the U.S.

Since launching as the Inside Google Project in late 2008. Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project has largely targeted Google, while paying significantly less attention to the privacy practices of several other Internet companies. Google representatives have questioned the impartiality of the group.

Under the EU’s right to be forgotten rules, residents of EU countries can ask search engines to delete links to information about them they find objectionable. The ruling, which went into effect in May 2014, does not require the information be deleted from the Internet, only that search engines not link to it.

The EU’s rule has been controversial, with some critics saying it amounts to censorship. “As a simple test, ask yourself whether this would be possible in the U.S. without a repeal or modification of the First Amendment—it would not,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said last year.

Google, the largest search engine, has granted about 41 percent of the right to be forgotten requests it has received in Europe. In several cases, Google has declined to remove links to news stories about criminal activity.

Google has managed right to be forgotten requests in Europe in a way that is not “burdensome” to the company, Consumer Watchdog said. Since the EU implemented the right to be forgotten rule, Google has received about 1 million requests to remove links from its search engine.

Google’s cost of reviewing requests should be part of its “reasonable cost of doing business as a search engine,” Simpson said. The rule should apply in the U.S. not only to Google, but to other search engines as well, he added.

Consumer Watchdog has focused on Google because it is “so dominant as a search engine,” Simpson said.

Consumer Watchdog is not attempting to bring strong EU privacy laws to the U.S., Simpson added. But real people are being “hurt” by Google’s failure to honor U.S. requests, he said.

“We’re not arguing that European laws should apply in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re saying that aggressively marketing yourself as being concerned about consumers’ privacy, but not offering a key privacy tool is deceptive.”

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