“Google it” is synonymous with seeking information. Now Google Inc. is struggling with a new rule: “Hide it.”
The world’s biggest search-engine company is grappling with how to apply a European Union court decision that said citizens have a so-called right to be forgotten when Internet searches throw up results that are “inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive.”
The company faces criticism from all sides for its response. It made a U-turn by restoring links to Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspaper stories in the U.K. after it was attacked for playing the role of press censor. Meanwhile, the country’s privacy watchdog said complaints have started to come from citizens who want information blocked.
“Google doesn’t want to do this, they fought against it,” said Danny O’Sullivan, a founding editor of industry website SearchEngineLand.com. “I don’t think that they’re competent to make those judgments, and they didn’t have to do it. They could have fought it by not acceding to all the requests” to pull search results.
Even though Google posted an online tool to handle thousands of removal requests and is blocking results of searches of people’s names, including news and blogs, it’s unclear from the ruling how far Google should be expected to censor the Internet.
Google’s U.K. U-turn came after it informed the newspapers it had removed links to articles—including search results for Dougie McDonald, a Scottish soccer referee, pointing to articles from 2010 about him lying about why he awarded a penalty kick.
The company may be “over-blocking” search results by removing recent news articles on issues of public interest that “clearly did not fit within the terms that the court ruling,” said Paul Bernal, a lecturer in law at the University of East Anglia. “Why would they overreact? Because they want to say they were right all along: this is unworkable and it’s censorship.”
Google has argued against EU proposals that may require it to delete information on people for years, with one of its lawyers comparing search to a postal service that can’t be blamed for the letters it carries, according to a 2012 blog post.
The EU’s Court of Justice disagreed on May 13, when it sided with Spain’s data-protection regulator which had ordered Google to remove a link to a newspaper notice that popped up on a search on Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a calligraphy expert whose house had been sold to pay off debt.
“I was constantly having to explain that I had no debt and show documents to prove it was true,” he said in an interview.
Google said it’s received as many as 70,000 requests involving the removal of some 250,000 Web links in the five weeks since it posted its online tool to handle applications from people who want to be forgotten.
“If the link is removed, the harm disappears or is greatly reduced,” said Jose Luis Rodriguez Alvarez, the head of the Spanish privacy authority.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company is complying with the EU ruling and tackling “a new and evolving process for us,” according to an e-mailed statement. “We’ll continue to listen to feedback and we’ll also work with data protection authorities and others.”
Microsoft Corp., which operates the Bing search engine, said it is also working on a response to the ruling.
“Developing an appropriate system is taking us some time,” Robin Koch, a spokesman for the company, said in an e-mail. “We expect to launch a form through which users can make requests soon.” The New York Times reported that the form may be ready as soon as next week.
In the meantime, a panel of EU data regulators will start work next week on guidelines for how to deal with complaints when citizens aren’t happy with the way right-to-be-forgotten requests are handled by search-engine companies.
The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office said this week that it’s started to receive the “first few concerns about requests to Google to remove links.”
Simon Hughes, the U.K.’s minister for justice and civil liberties, told lawmakers in London that complying with the ruling may be an “unmanageable task” for search-engine companies such as Google and Microsoft.
Rather than have search-engine operators poring over thousands of requests to be forgotten, the job should go to “a proper” authority, said Gideon Benaim, a lawyer who specializes in reputation protection at Michael Simkins LLP in London.
Such a body should have “some kind of quasi-judicial or data-protection background, dealing with requests in an organized and methodical manner,” Benaim said.
For Max Mosley, a former Formula One president who has sued Google for showing pictures of him in a sex party, “a grown-up socially responsible” company wouldn’t question taking down harmful information from the Web.
Mosley won a 2008 ruling against News Corp.’s now defunct News of the World Newspaper, which reported that the party had a Nazi theme. He argued that the story and video published on the paper’s website was an intrusion of privacy that violated rights protected by U.K. law.
“There is this slightly adolescent attitude among some people on the Web that everything should be completely free, that everything should be shown,” Mosley said in a phone interview.
“A moment’s reflection shows that’s nonsense,” Mosley said. “You have to draw the line somewhere and if Google won’t do it, which they should, then the courts will have to act.”