Google and other internet companies find themselves in a quandary over how to strike a balance between privacy and freedom of information as the top world search engine took a first step towards upholding an EU privacy ruling.
Google moved overnight to put up an online form that will allow European citizens to request that links to obsolete information be taken down – its first response to the ruling by Europe’s top court on “the right to be forgotten”.
The ruling on May 13 upheld a 1995 European law on data protection and ordered Google to remove links to a 1998 newspaper article about the repossession of a Spanish man’s home.
That puts Google and other internet companies in the position of having to interpret the court’s broad criteria for information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” as well as developing criteria for distinguishing public figures from private individuals.
After putting up the online form in the early hours of Friday, Google received 12,000 requests across Europe, sometimes averaging 20 per minute, by late in the day, the company said.
“The court’s ruling requires Google to make difficult judgements about an individual’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to know,” a Google spokesman said.
Next week representatives from the EU’s 28 data protection authorities are due to discuss the implications of the ruling at a two-day meeting.
Digital rights campaigners say the EU authorities need to agree on a common approach to guide the search engine companies.
“Companies should not be tasked with balancing fundamental rights or making decisions on the appropriateness, lawfulness, or relevance of information they did not publish,” said Raegan MacDonald, European policy manager at Access, a digital rights organization.
Public interest test
Privacy has been a hot topic in Europe since revelations last year about mass U.S. surveillance programs involving EU citizens and some heads of state.
Europe already has some of the most stringent data protection laws in the world, and the EU Commission has put forward a reform package to strengthen them even further. Member states have yet to agree to the proposals.
It is not the first time that Google has had legal problems over privacy.
In January a German court ordered Google to block search results in Germany linking to photos of a sex party involving former Formula One boss Max Mosley. Two months earlier a French court had also ruled against Google in the Mosley case.
Advocates of freedom of speech have said the May ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union paves the way for the rich and powerful as well as for criminals to conceal information.
The court allows Google to apply a public interest test in deciding whether to remove the search results. Politicians seeking to have incriminating information removed will probably not be able to benefit, according to lawyers.
In addition, the ruling does not mean that the information in question will be deleted, just the link appearing in search results.
Google said it had convened a committee of senior company executives and independent experts to try and craft a long-term approach to dealing with the barrage of requests.
Yahoo Inc which also operates a search engine in Europe, has said it is “carefully reviewing” the decision to assess the impact for its business and its users.