Google accused of censorship as it struggles with takedown requests

Google has come under fire over some of the search links it is removing in Europe as it struggles to cope with the high volume of takedown requests

Google has come under fire over some of the search links it is removing in Europe as it struggles to cope with the high volume of requests from Europeans exercising their right to be forgotten.

In May, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) upheld that right by ordering Google to remove search links to a 15-year-old newspaper article about a Spanish man’s bankruptcy.

The court ruled that an individual could demand that “irrelevant or outdated” information be deleted from search results.

Google started acting on takedown requests towards the end of June 2014, but has admitted “teething problems” as it struggles to deal with more than 70,000 requests, according to the Guardian newspaper.

The search firm was inundated with more than 41,000 takedown requests within four days of the ruling. Although the numbers have tapered off, the company is still receiving around 1,000 requests every day.

UK news organisations have been critical of some of Google’s decisions, accusing the company of press censorship for removing a string of name-based links from European search results.

The Guardian, the Daily Mail and BBC have accused Google of being too hasty in removing searches on specific names for information that is not “inaccurate, irrelevant or outdated” as required by the ECJ ruling.

Certain links have been removed then reinstated, which critics said casts doubt on the abilities of the team of paralegals hired by Google to evaluate and approve or reject takedown requests.

A Guardian News & Media spokesperson said: “We are always concerned about any attempts to block access to our content.

“The recent ECJ judgment requires Google to deal with these requests on a case-by-case basis, so their current approach appears to be an overly broad interpretation.

“If the purpose of the judgment is not to enable censorship of publishers by the back door, then we’d encourage Google to be transparent about the criteria it is using to make these decisions, and how publishers can challenge them.”

Julia Powles, a law researcher at Cambridge University, said: “We need much more information from Google about how it is prioritising complaints, as well as how its internal decision-makers are trained and what principles they are applying.”

A Google spokesperson said: “We have recently started taking action on the removals requests we’ve received after the European Court of Justice decision. This is a new and evolving process for us. We’ll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling.” 

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We should bear in mind that judgement was not about the right to demand the removal of links to material you do not like. Google was held to be a fault for ranking material that was out of date and had been superceded, above more recent and accurate material (not showing in search results at all).

This judgement strikes at the heart not only of the Google business model but of all those which assume that others may harvest information that does not belong to them, massage it and make money out of reselling the results without owing a duty of care (let alone royalties) to those affected.

Hence the need for political parties (on all sides) to take a cool look at the issues around "Big Data", "IPR" and "Internet Governance" lest they find themselves caught between a rock (industry lobbying) and a hard place (voter revolt).

How Google handles its current predicament will determine whether its share price has passed its Zenith or whether the Googlettes will inherit the world.