When people have the opportunity to erase personal information online, they often want to wipe out social media posts. That's the big takeaway from new data released by Google on which search results about themselves European Internet users were able to hide under the "right to be forgotten" policy.
The top site targeted was Facebook, followed by Profile Engine, a social account searching service. Google's own social platforms, including Google Groups, YouTube and Google Plus, also make the top 10 — as do Twitter and a social-dating network called Badoo. Combined, the top 10 sites account for nine percent of all removal requests, according to Google.
This makes sense because social networks are the places where the average person is most likely to see information about themselves posted online. It's also a sign that even as social media use has become the norm, people are still not fully comfortable with the way that their lives have been exposed in a world where practically everything can be shared either by themselves or others. And it appears that when a European Internet user gets Google to remove search results involving social networks, it often means hiding what someone else says about them.
The "right to be forgotten" policy is a result of a 2014 European court decision that said search engines must honor Europeans' requests to remove links to potentially damaging or privacy-invading content unless there's an overriding public-interest reason to keep them up. In practical terms, it means that Google and other similar services field a massive amount of such requests and evaluate if they fit that criteria. If they do, the company has to scrub the offending links from search results for the requester's name.
Google's own data shows that content being "self-authored" is among the top reasons it turns down "right to be forgotten" removal requests. That suggests people aren't going to have much luck getting search results about social media posts they wrote themselves removed. That makes sense because, in most cases, people should be able to remove those posts from the source on their own. The company does appear to make some exceptions for people whose online postings are hijacked by someone else.
But Google's data shows that European users are getting posts from Facebook and other social networks disassociated from their names in search results thanks to the "right to be forgotten" policy — and that leaves one other glaring option: People are stopping whatever their "friends" (or some rando) said about them from showing up. These comments aren't gone, of course, but they are harder to find.
This speaks to one of the big tensions that has emerged about social media. While social networks made it radically easier for people to connect and share online, they also turned out to be a sort of Wild West. Even if you're supposed to have some measure of control over the privacy of your own posts, navigating those controls and fully understanding their repercussions can be confusing — that's one of the reason services like Google and Facebook have tried to make that process simpler.
However, even if you're able to limit the exposure of your own posts, that doesn't control what other people say about you. Of course, people have always been able to comment on how other people live their lives. But never before have even the most off-the-cuff of those remarks made about others been so widely available — or so permanent. And now, Google's data is showing that people will try to escape them if they have a chance.