Google search chief: Users have right to be forgotten online -- in some cases

Amit Singhal, Google's search chief, says teenagers and other people who make small, "innocent" mistakes shouldn't be chased their entire lives.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
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Amit Singhal, Google's head of search, talks with Recode's Kara Swisher about the company's efforts. Shara Tibken/CNET

HALF MOON BAY, California -- Users should be allowed to have some of their information scrubbed from online search results, Google's head of search said Thursday, in what appears to be a softening of the company's official stance on the so-called "right to be forgotten" ruling.

Amit Singhal, speaking at the Code Mobile technology conference here, said for small, innocent things like a prank done as a teenager, those "should have the right to be forgotten." But for big things, like the outcome of medical malpractice lawsuits, people shouldn't be able to wipe their history from the Internet, he said.

"I have a lot of empathy for some teenager doing something they shouldn't have and that chases them the rest of their life," Singhal said. "We're a forgiving society. I believe we should find ways to make that possible" for them to erase the information from the Internet.

Last year, European lawmakers ruled that Google and other search engines must honor requests from individuals seeking to have their websites removed from search results because they may no longer be relevant or may infringe upon that person's privacy. Although Google disagreed with the ruling, the company has been carrying out the process by reviewing the more than 200,000 requests it has received, according to its latest Transparency Report.

The sticking point is that Google has been applying this process only to its European sites. For instance, if a citizen in Germany asks for a link to be removed from Google.de, Google's German site, the link remains active on the global search engine, Google.com.

Singhal has been working on the company's core moneymaker for the past 15 years. In that time, though, users have begun to shift away from desktop computers, where Google search was born, toward smartphones and tablets.

Google has been trying to strengthen its chops in mobile search. Earlier this week, the company began to make its latest version of its Android mobile software, called Marshmallow, more widely available to smartphone users.

One of the marquee features of the software is Now on Tap, an update to the search giant's digital assistant Google Now. The feature lets you access Google Now by holding the home button on your phone, similar to what Apple lets you do with its own assistant, Siri. With Now on Tap, Google reaches into its trove of data on users to give them useful information based on what they are doing at the time. That includes understanding what email you're reading or knowing what dry cleaner you use.

Singhal on Thursday echoed Google's comments from May that more searches are now done on mobile devices, excluding tablets, than on desktop browsers. Google gets over 100 billion searches a month, he said.

"This summer for the first time, we are getting more searches on mobile devices than desktop, and that trend's going to continue worldwide," Singhal said.

He also said the company has to think about search differently on different devices. Search in a car or on a wearable is different from on a desktop computer. Car users, for instance, are most focused on searches for navigation and entertainment, while wearables are still about notifications.

"What we've observed is as soon as the form factor changes, the kinds of things people do with that form factor changes," Singhal said.

CNET reporter Richard Nieva contributed to this report.