Right to Be Forgotten on Web Applies Only Within EU, Panel Asserts

A Google-commissioned group said the directive's objectives can be met without taking it global, but some privacy advocates beg to differ.

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A Google-appointed group of advisors said the company has little reason to implement the European Union's right to be forgotten mandate on a global basis.

In a 44-page document released Feb. 6, the eight-member panel of academicians, rights advocates and legal experts held that Google could meet the objectives of the mandate by limiting its requirements to European-directed search services.

The right to be forgotten directive basically gives individuals in the EU the right to ask Google to remove links in its search engine results in certain situations. Google has maintained that it can fulfill the requirements of the directive by removing links in search engine results in the EU but not elsewhere.

The advisory panel today sided with that viewpoint. "There is a competing interest on the part of users outside of Europe to access information via a name-based search in accordance with the laws of their country, which may be in conflict with the [requirements of the EU directive]," the panel said in its report.

"There is also a competing interest on the part of users within Europe to access versions of search other than their own," the report noted.

The council supports the objectives of the right to be forgotten directive. But, "given concerns of proportionality and practical effectiveness, it concludes that removal from nationally directed versions of Google's search services within the EU is the appropriate means to implement the ruling at this stage."

The panel's recommendations are not binding on anybody in any way and merely reflect the independent opinion of a group of people selected by Google to advise it on the best way to implement the EU directive. But it is sure to infuriate data protection authorities in the EU as well as privacy advocates who support the notion of a "right to forget" on the Internet.

The EU right to be forgotten decision stems from a lawsuit filed by an individual in Spain who wanted Google to remove links in its search results to two articles that he claimed were defamatory to his character.

In May 2014, the Court of Justice for the European Union held that individuals in the EU indeed had the right to ask search engine companies like Google to remove links to articles that were inaccurate, outdated or contained incomplete information about them. In arriving at is decision, however, the court left it up to Google to decide how it would implement the directive.

Google has expressed its willingness to comply with the court's order but has said it will remove disputed search links only on Google search domains directed at users inside the EU. The company has resisted removing the links from its main Google.com domain.

So a user in France searching on Google.fr for instance would not see links that might have been delisted at an individual's request in that country. But those same links would remain available on search engine results if the user went to Google.com instead.

Google has insisted that it wants to be respectful of the privacy concerns that prompted the right to be forgotten mandate. It has argued that the directive puts it in the awkward and unsustainable position of having to evaluate the merits of thousands of link removal requests on a case-by-case basis.

In acting upon such requests, Google has said it has to find a way to balance legitimate individual privacy requirements in Europe with laws pertaining to free speech, expression and the right to know in other countries.

Over the past few months, EU regulators and Google have tussled over how the right to be forgotten law should be implemented. EU authorities have maintained that it makes little sense for Google to remove links from its European search results if they remain available via its main Google.com domain.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, slammed the Google's advisory council's reasoning Friday. "They got it wrong. Google's position makes no sense," he said.

"The fact that a panel selected by Google selected an outcome that is favorable to Google is more evidence that these decisions should not be left to the search giant," he said, pointing to statistics showing growing support for the right to be forgotten worldwide.

Already 61 percent of Americans favor the right to be forgotten on the Internet and efforts similar to the EU directive are already under way in Japan, Canada and Mexico, he said.

Danny O'Brien, international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the dispute surfaces several complex issues that are going to be very hard to resolve. "This is a situation where neither of these players has the moral or legal authority to make these decisions," O'Brien said.

Neither Google nor data protection authorities are equipped to decide what content should or should not be discoverable on the Internet, he said. "The real decisions will have to come from the court. But that is not going to happen unless someone challenges these takedown requests in court."

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.