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Google hit with take-down requests after European privacy ruling

Warwick Ashford

Google is already receiving requests to remove links to personal information from search results after Europe’s top court supported the controversial right to be forgotten in a landmark ruling.

Take-down requests were reportedly submitted within a day of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that an individual could demand that "irrelevant or outdated" information be deleted from results.

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The case was brought by Mario Gonzalez of Spain, who complained that an auction notice of his repossessed home on Google's search results infringed his privacy.

According to the ECJ ruling, Europeans can submit take-down requests directly to internet companies and seek redress from the courts if those internet companies fail to take action.

But Google is yet to put processes in place to deal with resulting take-down requests, according to an unnamed source cited in a Business Insider report.

No clear criteria

The source said Google will need to build up an "army of removal experts" in each EU member state, but still needs to decide if they will merely remove links or judge the merits of each take-down request.

But there are no clear criteria for determining which take-down requests are legitimate, according to Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at the George Washington University.

The ruling seems to give search engines more leeway to dismiss take-down requests for links to webpages about public figures, in which the information is deemed to be of public interest.

But search engines may err on the side of caution and remove more links than necessary, said Rosen, who was asked by Google to speak on the ruling, but has no formal relationship with the company.

At the company’s annual shareholder meeting, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said the case was simply a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know.

“From Google's perspective that's a balance," he said. "Google believes – having looked at the decision, which is binding – that the balance that was struck was wrong."

Censorship

Google is the dominant search engine in Europe, with about 93% of the market, according to StatCounter global statistics. Microsoft’s Bing has 2.4% and Yahoo has 1.7%.

Yahoo said in a statement that it is "carefully reviewing" the decision to assess the impact for its business and its users, while Microsoft is yet to comment.

Digital consultancy Bell Pottinger Wired said the ruling “makes for an unrealistic web” and “opens a can of worms” for the entire communications industry.

“While the ruling represents fantastic news for the individual, it will come at significant cost to Google and other major content providers as they prepare to deal with increased customer requests and areas of uncertainty,” said James Thomlinson, partner and managing director at Bell Pottinger Wired.

 “The lack of clarity from the ECJ on relevancy of results and whether or not this ruling applies to individuals in companies or even an entire brand’s reputation, will have lawyers up and down the country rubbing their hands in glee,” he said.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told the BBC the ruling was “astonishing” and one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings to date.

But, Wales said he suspects the ruling may not stand very long because it does not make sense to expect search providers to decide which claims have merit and which do not.

"That's a very hard and difficult thing for Google to do - particularly if it's at risk of being held legally liable if it gets it wrong, he said, adding that he expects Google to put up vigorous resistance to the ruling.

But European Commission (EC) vice-president Viviane Reding – who has led the EU's data privacy efforts – said the ruling confirms the need to bring data protection rules up to date.

"This is exactly what the data protection reform is about - making sure those who do business in Europe, respect European laws and empowering citizens to take the necessary actions to manage their data,” she said in a posting on her Facebook page.


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