Google faces deluge of requests to wipe details from search index
Ex-politician seeking re-election and paedophile among those trying to exercise ‘right to be forgotten’ after landmark ruling
Hundreds of people including an ex-politician seeking re-election, a paedophile and a doctor have applied to have details about them wiped from Google’s search index since a landmark ruling in Europe on Tuesday.
The deluge of claims trying to exercise the “right to be forgotten” follows a decision by Europe’s highest court, which said that in some cases the right to privacy of individuals outweighs the freedom of search engines to link to information about them although the information itself can remain on web pages.
The Guardian understands that the applications have been made to remove links to information that the complainants say is outdated or irrelevant including, in the UK, a former politician who is now seeking office and wishes information about their behaviour while in office to be removed. A man convicted of possessing child abuse images has demanded links to pages about his conviction are taken out of the index, while a doctor has said that negative reviews from patients should not be searchable.
In total hundreds of people have made claims across Europe since the ruling was released on Tuesday morning.
Google, which has more than 90% of the search market in Europe, declined to comment on how many applications it has received, or their nature.
A Google spokesperson said: “The ruling has significant implications for how we handle takedown requests. This is logistically complicated not least because of the many languages involved and the need for careful review. As soon as we have thought through exactly how this will work, which may take several weeks, we will let our users know.”
Google already removes millions of links per month from its indexes where copyright holders such as music and film companies say they infringe their content. But those are largely automated. In the case of people demanding removal, each request would have to be considered individually.
The European court of justice ruling on Tuesday was criticised on Wednesday by Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmdt, who said that the ruling was over “a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google’s perspective that’s a balance. Google believes, having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.”
But Viviane Reding, the European commission’s vice-president, said that the ruling “is exactly what 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”.
The ruling says that search engines must remove links where they point to information that is “irrelevant or outdated” but that the original information itself can remain. That could cause tensions between the search engines and news organisations, because the latter may argue that links should not be removed, creating a tug of war that leaves the search engines at risk of being sued by both the complainant and the original source of the information.
The ECJ ruling includes a public interest test, which says that search engines do not have to honour removal requests if keeping the links about a person “is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of inclusion in the list of results, access to the information in question”.
In the case of the ex-politician seeking office, or a convicted paedophile, that could mean Google and others will have a reason to reject calls to expunge their index.
Google and other search engines operating in Europe, including Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo, will have to devise procedures that allow them to accept requests for link removal from individuals. But sources with knowledge of Google’s procedures said that a suggestion by Hamburg’s deputy data commissioner that it would have procedures in place within two weeks were incorrect.
Google is understood to be considering offloading the task of deciding whether links should be removed from its index to the data protection commissioners in the country where requests are received – a move that could add significantly to the commissioners’ caseload, which in some cases is already under considerable strain.
The UK’s information commissioner, Christopher Graham, is currently reviewing the ruling, but a spokesman for his office declined to comment on the possibility of taking on the task of reviewing such cases. “We are still studying the ruling,” he said.
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