Google takes first step to comply with EU rules

Google headquarters. Mountainview, 2010. [Héctor García/Flickr]

Google has launched a service through which European citizens can request that links to what they deem objectionable be taken off search results, the first step towards complying with a court ruling affirming the “right to be forgotten.”

The world’s largest Internet search engine, which processes more than 90 percent of all search inquiries in Europe, said on Thursday that it has made available a form through which people can submit their requests, but stopped short of specifying when it would remove links that meet the criteria for deletion.

Google also said it has convened a committee of senior Google executives and independent experts to try and craft a long-term approach to dealing with what’s expected to be a barrage of requests from the region’s roughly half-billion occupants.

“In implementing this decision, we will assess each individual request and attempt to balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public’s right to know and distribute information,” reads the webform that Google made available on Thursday.

Google says in the form that when evaluating requests, it will consider whether the results include outdated information about a person, as well as whether there’s a public interest in the information, such as information about professional malpractice, criminal convictions and the public conduct of government officials.

The form includes space for users to submit objectionable links and a box for the person to explain why the link is “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate.”

To make a request, a person must submit a digital copy of an official identification, such as a valid driver’s license, and select from a drop-down menu of 32 European countries the appropriate country whose law applies to the request.

The decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union places Google in a tricky position as it strives to interpret the EU’s broad criteria for objectionable links, and to remove certain content from its search engine while preserving its popularity as a resource for users to find all manner of information.

Google will also face a logistical challenge in processing requests in various languages, some of which are in countries that Google does not even have operations in.

Failure to remove links that meet the EU’s broad criteria for take-down can result in fines.

Since the ruling, Google has received thousands of removal requests, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Google has said it is disappointed with the EU ruling, and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said the balance the court struck between privacy and “the right to know” was wrong.

Among the members of the special advisory committee Google is forming to study the issue are Jimmy Wales, co-founder of online encyclopedia Wikipedia, and Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

The committee will be co-chaired by Schmidt and Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond.

Google said in a statement on Thursday that it will work with data protection authorities and others as it implements the ruling.

Still, it is not clear when Google will begin to actually remove any links. In the webform, Google says it is “working to finalize our implementation of removal requests under European data protection law as soon as possible. In the meantime, please fill out the form below and we will notify you when we start processing your request.”

Yahoo Inc which also operates a search engine in Europe, has previously said it is “carefully reviewing” the decision to assess the impact for its business and its users. Microsoft, which operates the Bing search engine, has previously declined to comment on the ruling.    

A ruling on 13 May by the European Court of Justice backed the EU's drive to introduce a "right to be forgotten" on the Internet. That prompted Google to remove links to news stories about individuals from its search results, following 

Judges in Luxembourg said that internet search engine providers were responsible for processing personal data appearing on web pages published by third parties, such as newspapers. The decision must be taken into account by national courts across the EU.

The May ruling follows an appeal by Google against an order to remove links to two news stories regarding a real estate auction to pay unpaid taxes. The order from Spain's data authority is being examined by a tribunal, who referred the case to the European Court of Justice to clarify a number of points of EU law.

The ECJ found that Google did have to apply EU privacy law and that, under certain circumstances, it should have to edit or remove its search results.

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