It probably doesn't come as a surprise that internet users are becoming increasingly aware of their online privacy. This translates to more downloads of VPN services, for instance, among other things.
At the same time, governments are passing new regulations, like the GDPR in Europe, to give citizens more control over their data.
One way to do this is filling a so-called "right to be forgotten" request, to ask search engines and/or other companies to delete these information records.
Popular VPN provider Surfshark, decided to look into if people in Europe actually exercise their right to be forgotten. Here's what it found out.
What's the "right to be forgotten"?
First established in 2014 and then renamed as the "right to erasure" following the introduction of the GDPR in 2018, the "right to be forgotten" enables individuals to exercise their right to ask organizations to delete their personal information from their records.
This means that everyone living in the EU, EEA or other European countries like the UK and Switzerland can take back control over their online data, whether this has been shared with their previous medical center, phone provider or daily search engine.
To conduct its study (opens in new tab), Surfshark decided to focus on the latter. Specifically, researchers analyzed the right to be forgotten requests filed by 32 countries in Europe to Google and Microsoft Bing between 2015 and 2021.
Who cares about privacy the most in Europe?
Google and Bing received 1,066,274 "right to be forgotten" requests between the coverage period. Among these, the great majority (95,8%) were delivered to Google. According to Surfshark, this is likely due to Google being the most-used search engine in Europe as well as worldwide.
2015 was the first full year that the policy was in place, seeing over 169,000 requests. This figure slowly decreased during the years that follow, experiencing a considerable spike in 2020. The year after was then the one where the most requests were filed, reaching more than 185,000.
According to Gabriele Kaveckyte, Privacy Counsel at Surfshark, the COVID-19 pandemic was the main reason for the 2020 rise.
"As many daily activities became virtual, it encouraged people to be more conscious of their digital hygiene and review their privacy online,” she said. “At the same time, GDPR enforcement accelerated and continues to enforce online privacy as a fundamental human right to this day."
Above all, people in France were those exercising their right to be forgotten the most, counting for almost a quarter of the total requests submitted during the coverage period. Right after, Germany and the UK were the other countries where users are most concerned over their data.
As the three countries topping the list are the biggest in Europe in terms of population, researchers decided to also look at the request density to have a better picture.
Findings here revealed that Estonia is actually the country most concerned about privacy, with an average rate of 53 requests per 10,000 people. France gets the second place with an average of 40, followed by the Netherlands with 32.
Data also shows the nations less worried or aware about online privacy. These are Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia. Overall, Western and Northern Europeans seems to be the most privacy-aware in Europe, while those living in Eastern Europe areas are less concerned.
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Looking at what type of information people ask to delete the most, there are professional details, crime related-data and personal information.
However, as the report notes, "around half of the pages asked to be delisted from Google couldn’t be classed into a specific category."
It is worth noting that submitting a "right to be forgotten" request doesn't guarantee it will be fulfilled.
That's because the search engine and any other organization will evaluate queries according to a set of criteria such as whether or not the information within the web page is excessive, irrelevant, or of public interest.
To fully take back agency over your data, Surfshark also suggests to "look into the search results displayed on other search engines too" rather than just Google.