Brits are among the most active enforcers of their “right to be forgotten”

From 2015-2021, over 1 million requests were submitted to Google and Microsoft Bing seeking the erasure of their data from certain web pages, with half of the requests coming from Western European countries.

Cases of users submitting “right to be forgotten” requests to search engines like Google and Bing hit over 1 million from 2015-2021, a study from Dutch VPN service Surfshark has revealed.

Under the right, individuals are allowed to ask webpages to delete their personal data by delisting queries related to their name from European search engine result pages. It applies to all countries covered by the GDPR and some other European countries that have adopted similar laws, including the UK and Switzerland.

The UK placed third among countries of origin for requests, with just over 125,000, while France topped the list with more than 255,000 requests, accounting for almost a fourth of the total.

A growing desire for privacy post-pandemic

Following the inception of the “right to be forgotten” in 2015, yearly requests had been trending downward with a slight decline each year, however, 2020 saw an increase of almost 30% following the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This increase continued into 2021, when requests topped 185,000 for the first time, beating out the previous high of just over 169,000 in right’s introduction year.

Gabriele Kaveckyte, Privacy Counsel at Surfshark, said: “One of the reasons for the rise in the ‘right to be forgotten’ requests in 2020 could be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. As many daily activities became virtual, it encouraged people to be more conscious of their digital hygiene and review their privacy online.

“At the same time, GDPR enforcement accelerated and continues to enforce online privacy as a fundamental human right to this day.“

The requests have been far more popular in Western European countries than Eastern European ones, with Estonia having the most requests per 10,000 people - more than 2.5 times higher than the average - making it the most densely populated country in terms of people invoking their right to be forgotten.

Over 4 million web pages were included within the requests over the six years studied and while almost half of the pages people asked to be delisted from couldn’t be categorised, nearly 17% of requests were in relation to personal information and almost 1 in 10 webpages referenced the requester concerning crimes, including those within their professional field.

In a similar fashion to the GDPR, “right to be forgotten” is of significant importance to performance marketing because of the influence it can have on SEO for brands and marketers. Any removal of data from the web has an impact on SEO and how results are determined following a search, largely because of how search engines themselves respond to the change.

Google has adjusted its SEO algorithms several times since the right’s induction and regularly reviews how search rankings are best generated. Simply, brands need to remain abreast of any large-scale removals of data from the web, if only to be aware of a potential reaction from search engines.