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Google's two years of forgetting Europeans

For two years now, Google has been "forgetting" Europeans.The number one place that Europe wants forgotten? Facebook.com.

Sunday marks the second anniversary of Google accepting requests to remove certain URLs from its search results if an individual requests it — otherwise known as the "Right to be Forgotten" ruling based on the European Union's data-protection rules. It allows individual Europeans to fill out a form with Google, requesting that specific internet addresses be removed from search results if they contain inaccurate or outdated information about them.

Google's process in determining what links to remove from search results is set up under EU guidelines to protect citizens' data. Decisions are often based on details about the situation and the person, as evidenced by example cases from the company's transparency report. In one, a teacher requested removal of an article about a decade-old conviction for a "minor crime." Google removed those links from search results for the teacher's name.

In another, a public official requested removal of a "recent article discussing a decades-old criminal conviction." In that case, Google did not remove the links.

Google also rejected the request of a former U.K. clergyman who had been accused of sexual abuse under his professional capacity. News articles about the investigation remain in his search results.

Google's official request processing began May 29, 2014. Since then, the company has removed more than half a million links to pages about individuals from its search results, according to company data.

Many of the links that people have requested are from social media sites like Facebook and people directories like Annuaire. One is profileengine.com, a New Zealand site that scraped Facebook profiles until its access was allegedly cut off in 2010 and the company sued Facebook.

As of late Thursday, Google had removed 551,024 of the URLs requested, or about 43 percent.

The vast majority of removal requests has come from big countries like Germany, France and the United Kingdom, which is no surprise. But there are interesting details in the data.

Estonia, birthplace of Skype, requested the most URLs removed when adjusted for population, about 790 per 100,000 residents. Google removed about 65 percent of those requested from Estonia. (A single request can contain multiple URLs for removal.)

Nearly 64 percent of the requests for removal from Bulgaria were rejected by Google, the highest rate in the EU. Residents of the Balkan nation submitted only 1,755 requests, or a total of 100 URLs per 100,000 residents, the second fewest in the bloc.

A Google representative could not provide further country-by-country data.

If an individual's request is accepted, it doesn't mean the page is expunged from all Google search results. An example the company provides:

So, if we granted a request to delist an article for John Smith about his trip to Paris, we would not show the result for queries relating to [john smith] but we would show it for a query like [trip to paris].

The original case that rose through the court system from 2010 involved an auction notice for a Spanish man's repossessed home that was published in a local newspaper. The man argued that because the matter had been settled, the notice shouldn't appear in search results, or should be amended to reflect the update.

In May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union decided for the man, settling precedent for the "Right to be Forgotten." It also decided that a search engine is the controller of personal data and can thusly be held responsible for handling that data. That they are simply 'indexers' isn't an excuse.

The case made clear that EU rules apply even if the physical server in question is located outside of the EU. The rules apply as long as the search engine has a branch or subsidiary within an EU member state "which promotes the selling of advertising space offered by the search engine," according to the European Commission.