01/11/2019 15:20 EST | Updated 01/11/2019 15:27 EST

Canadians Want Power To Be 'Forgotten’ On Search Engines Like Google: Poll

For better or worse, Europe’s already doing it.

Mario Beauregard/The Canadian Press
Google's office in Montreal, Que. on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2018.

More than half of Canadians want the right to request search engines remove what they believe to be harmful, personal information from search results, says a new poll.

Coined "the right to be forgotten," it's a practice that's already in place in the European Union, and will be seriously considered by Canadian lawmakers, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the federal court this year.

But an expert warns giving companies like Google the power to decide what data should stay in search results and what should be harder to find is a dangerous road to go down, even if people's reputations are on the line.

"You're giving a lot of power to a search engine to determine and decide what information is in public interest," lawyer and privacy expert Eloïse Gratton told HuffPost Canada. "I think people perhaps don't understand the implications of this right."

WATCH: Google fights right to be forgotten

The research foundation Angus Reid Institute found 51 per cent of Canadians believe people should have the right to be forgotten, and search engine results changed so that "negative information doesn't dominate their online record forever," according to the poll results released earlier this week.

Twenty-six per cent of Canadians believe Internet searches are a form of public record and results shouldn't be erased, and twenty-three per cent said they weren't sure or couldn't say, the poll found.

Right now, Canadians don't have a way to request search engines like Google de-index specific, potentially harmful search results, making specific web pages and information more difficult to find. Google said it wants to keep it that way.

"Removing lawful information from a search engine limits access to media properties, past decisions by public figures and information about many other topics," said Peter Fleischer, Google's Global Privacy Counsel in an email statement. "Freedom of expression is a broadly recognized — and passionately defended — right in Canada and we believe that every Canadian has the right to access lawful information."

After public consultations, however, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien determined under Canada's existing privacy law, Canadians should have the right to be forgotten.

"We approached this work with one key goal in mind: helping to create an environment where individuals may use the Internet to explore their interests and develop as persons without fear that their digital trace will lead to unfair treatment," Therrien wrote in a report to parliament last September.

Therrien has requested the federal court determine if Canadians have the right to be forgotten, and the case will move ahead in the coming months, said the privacy commissioner's office.

A complaint Therrien's office received is included in the court application. An unnamed man alleged Google will not de-index links to online news articles that appear when his name is searched even though the articles are outdated, inaccurate and reveal his sexual orientation and serious medical condition, according to the application.

"The fact that Google prominently links these articles to his name in search results has caused, and continues to cause him, direct harm," said the application.

A man raises his hand during at Google offices in New York. People should have some say over the results that pop up when they conduct a search of their own name online, Europe's highest court said May 13, 2014.

Ultimately, parliament will decide if it will clarify or change its privacy law to include the right to be forgotten, and so far it's supported by MPs from the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee, which made the recommendation in its report from February.

It also recommended Canada consider including in its privacy act the right for Canadians, especially young people, to have personal information posted online erased.

"Our committee expressly focused on minors," said Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a vice chair on the committee. "We post online and do stupid things when we're kids. Intuitively it makes sense the right to be forgotten should exist right away for minors."

He emphasized the information that qualified to be erased or de-indexed would have to be untrue, or embarrassing and not in the public interest.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Conservative MP Bob Zimmer rises in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Jan. 31, 2018. He is chair of the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee.

Committee chair Bob Zimmer, a Conservative MP, said Canada needs to start thinking of data as "digital DNA" and sacrosanct. That approach encompasses the right to be forgotten — if Canadians want a webpage about them to be more difficult find because it includes false or personal information, for example, they should be allowed to make that request, he said.

"Our data is our soul online, so we should be able to affect it. We should own our information," Zimmer said. "You don't let people take your DNA. You shouldn't let people take your data."

Following a court ruling in 2014 that found search engines must allow for people to request information be de-indexed if it is inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive, Google set up an online application process.

Is this a public figure? Is this information relevant for researchers? Is it a one-sided request? Should this info de-indexed forever? We need to think about all these issues.Eloïse Gratton, privacy expert

Since then, Google has received close to three million requests to de-list URLs, and done so 44 per cent of the time, it reported. People have wanted urls to be removed from search results because they contain personal information or insufficient information, are related to a crime, or professional wrongdoing, or the link doesn't actually contain their name, among other reasons.

If Canada decides it wants to put into place the right to be forgotten, it shouldn't copy Europe's approach, Gratton said. Instead of allowing Google to decide what should or shouldn't be removed, the government needs to set up a separate body with judicial oversight to handle requests, or it could strengthen defamation and privacy laws to discourage harmful information from being published in the first place.

"Is this a public figure? Is this information relevant for researchers? Is it a one-sided request? Should this info de-indexed forever? We need to think about all these issues," Gratton said.

The poll results come from an online survey of 1,500 Canadian adults conducted last November, and carry a margin of error +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The survey was self-commissioned and paid for by the Angus Reid Institute.

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