Newly leaked figures reveal that the vast majority of people who exercised their right to be "forgotten" by Google's services in Europe are everyday members of the public, with just 5 percent of requests coming from criminals, politicians and high-profile public figures.
Europe's highest court affirmed last year that people have the right to ask Google to remove certain results from its search engine, on the grounds that the information might be outdated or otherwise unfairly cast them in a negative light.
Google has protested the decision, arguing that removing links requires "difficult value judgments" and can go against the public interest. It has pointed to "former politicians wanting posts removed that criticize their policies in office; serious, violent criminals asking for articles about their crimes to be deleted; bad reviews for professionals like architects and teachers; comments that people have written themselves (and now regret)."
The figures suggest that requests from those first two categories, at least -- politicians and serious criminals -- have been minimal.
The Guardian newspaper discovered the numbers hidden in the source code for an archived version of Google's transparency report. The information has since been removed.
Google's original report provided the number of requests received and granted, but did not describe the nature of the requests in detail.
According to the Guardian, of the nearly 220,000 requests received as of March, more than 95 percent came from everyday citizens throughout Europe wanting links to private and personal information removed.
The requests included a woman whose name appeared in prominent news articles after her husband died, while another sought the removal of her address, The Guardian said. Another request came from an individual who contracted HIV a decade ago.
The European court ruling said Google and other search engines should consider carefully whether information people want removed is irrelevant or outdated, and remove links unless there are compelling reasons not to do so, such as when the information might serve the public interest.
The leaked figures suggest Google is adhering to those principles. The company granted requests from everyday citizens at a higher frequency than those related to political or public figures or serious crimes. Google has granted nearly half of all private and personal requests, while for information tied to political and public figures, it granted less than a quarter of them.
In total, Google has received more than 280,000 requests to remove links since Europe's top court required Google and other search providers to do so last May.
Google still has complicated issues to weigh in determining whether information tied to requests from everyday people might still serve the public interest. But the numbers give an indication that it's not primarily criminals and politicians who want to use the ruling to erase the past.
A Google spokesman, in a statement, said the company has aimed to be as transparent as possible about its right to be forgotten decisions.
"The data The Guardian found in our Transparency Reports source code does of course come from Google, but it was part of a test to figure out how we could best categorize requests," he said. The test was discontinued in March because the data was not reliable enough for publication, he said, but the company is working on ways to improve its transparency reporting.