It’s been two months since a May European Union court established rules allowing individuals to request that negative information about them be removed from online searches, but even now, Google is still working to find its way to comply with the law but still keep the Internet relevant.
That’s the message of David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president of corporate development and the company’s chief legal officer, in an op-ed column that was published this weekend in several European newspapers. Drummond’s op-ed piece was also published in a July 11 post on the Google Europe Blog to explain how the company is continuing to find the right balance between complying with the controversial “right to forget” law and keeping the information on the Internet accurate and relevant. Under the law, information can only be removed under certain conditions.
“When you search online, there’s an unwritten assumption that you’ll get an instant answer, as well as additional information if you need to dig deeper,” wrote Drummond. “This is all possible because of two decades worth of investment and innovation by many different companies. Today, however, search engines across Europe face a new challenge—one we’ve had just two months to get our heads around. That challenge is figuring out what information we must deliberately omit from our results, following a new ruling from the European Court of Justice.”
Previously, Google only removed information from search results at the request of individuals when it met several very restrictive requirements, including that the information had been “deemed illegal by a court, such as defamation, pirated content (once we’re notified by the rights holder), malware, personal information such as bank details, child sexual abuse imagery and other things prohibited by local law (like material that glorifies Nazism in Germany),” wrote Drummond.
That was previously done because “article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,'” wrote Drummond.
Now, the EU court ruling has changed all of that, he added, giving individuals the right to ask for information to be removed from search results that include their names if it is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive,” he wrote.
The problem with all of this, he wrote, is that “in deciding what to remove, search engines must also have regard to the public interest,” under what can be “very vague and subjective tests.”
The EU court decision also stipulated that search engines don’t have the same “journalistic exceptions” that news organizations have, which allows them to publish news even when it annoys the subject of the reports, wrote Drummond. “This means that The Guardian could have an article on its Website about an individual that’s perfectly legal, but we might not legally be able to show links to it in our results when you search for that person’s name. It’s a bit like saying the book can stay in the library, it just cannot be included in the library’s card catalogue.”
Google Working Out Specifics of EU’s ‘Right to Forget’ Law
These are among the challenges of complying with the new law, wrote Drummond. “It’s for these reasons that we disagree with the ruling. That said, we obviously respect the court’s authority and are doing our very best to comply quickly and responsibly. It’s a huge task as we’ve had over 70,000 take-down requests covering 250,000 Web pages since May. So we now have a team of people individually reviewing each application, in most cases with limited information and almost no context.”
Some of the problems that have cropped up so far in the information removal requests have included “former politicians wanting posts removed that criticize their policies in office; serious, violent criminals asking for articles about their crimes to be deleted; bad reviews for professionals like architects and teachers; [and] comments that people have written themselves (and now regret),” he wrote. “In each case, someone wants the information hidden, while others might argue it should be out in the open.”
To look at the incoming removal requests, Google has to determine what’s in the public interest while also taking other factors into account, he wrote. “These include whether: the information relates to a politician, celebrity, or other public figure; if the material comes from a reputable news source, and how recent it is; whether it involves political speech; questions of professional conduct that might be relevant to consumers; the involvement of criminal convictions that are not yet ‘spent’; and if the information is being published by a government. But these will always be difficult and debatable judgments.”
Google’s compliance situation, he wrote, is still a work in progress after only two months. “It’s why we incorrectly removed links to some articles last week (they have since been reinstated). But the good news is that the ongoing, active debate that’s happening will inform the development of our principles, policies and practices—in particular about how to balance one person’s right to privacy with another’s right to know.”
To help the process, Google has just implemented an advisory council of experts, according to Drummond, including people from the worlds of academia, the media, data protection, civil society and the tech sector, who are serving as independent advisors to Google to improve the removal process.
“The council will be asking for evidence and recommendations from different groups, and will hold public meetings this autumn across Europe to examine these issues more deeply,” he wrote. “Its public report will include recommendations for particularly difficult removal requests (like criminal convictions); thoughts on the implications of the court’s decision for European Internet users, news publishers, search engines and others; and procedural steps that could improve accountability and transparency for Websites and citizens.”
Google is continuing to work on improving the process because the company is “committed to complying with the court’s decision,” wrote Drummond. “Indeed it’s hard not to empathize with some of the requests we’ve seen—from the man who asked that we not show a news article saying he had been questioned in connection with a crime (he’s able to demonstrate that he was never charged) to the mother who requested that we remove news articles [that included] her daughter’s name as she had been the victim of abuse. It’s a complex issue, with no easy answers. So a robust debate is both welcome and necessary, as, on this issue at least, no search engine has an instant or perfect answer.”
Google Working Out Specifics of EU’s ‘Right to Forget’ Law
Earlier this month, Google began removing links to content that was deemed objectionable by subjects of the content under the rules established by the EU court. Critics however, are also making sure that their disdain for the new law is also clearly heard. The critics argue that the practice is wrongly changing and cleansing history online.
By removing the posts from the searches, Peston told the paper, history has been changed and people can’t learn what truly happened. “To all intents and purposes, the article has been removed from the public record, given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people,” Peston told the paper.
To comply with the “right to forget” ruling, Google has made an online form and process available for EU residents who want to request information removals about themselves.
Only residents in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are presently eligible to use the form, according to Google.
The EU’s May decision was a stunning reversal of an earlier opinion by an adviser to the Court of Justice of the European Union in June 2013 that said Google should not have to delete information from its search results when old information is pulled up that is damaging to individuals.
In the 2013 case, a man in Spain had argued that Google searches of his name had uncovered a then-15-year-old announcement in a newspaper describing how a property he owned was up for auction because of nonpayment of Social Security, the court stated. The man wanted Google to remove the old information, which was damaging his reputation, according to the earlier case.
The Spanish court originally accepted the man’s argument and ordered Google to remove the information from its search results. Google then appealed that decision and received the favorable opinion from the Court of Justice adviser, who ruled that the original Spanish court decision was wrong.