Google has set live a web form in which Europeans can request that links to out-of-date or unwelcome online information about them be removed.
The form’s appearance follows a judgement by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), in which the court said people had a right to have stop search providers from linking to information including their name that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.”
This mostly affects Google, which holds well over 90 percent of the European search market. The ruling has frequently been referred to as entrenching a “right to be forgotten”, though it actually just says existing offline rights also exist online. It also doesn’t mean that the linked-to content must itself be removed — just the links. A more comprehensive right to be forgotten may soon be instituted in new legislation.
Google’s balancing act
In line with European legal principles, the ruling gave more weight to the right to privacy than it did to the right to free expression. However, it did also note that those evaluating takedown requests would need to bear in mind the public interest.
Days after the ruling, Google reportedly received requests from an ex-politician looking to stop people reading about his conduct in office, a pedophile wanting details of his conviction to be de-linked, and a doctor who didn’t want people to see negative reviews from his patients.
“When evaluating your request, we will look at whether the results include outdated information about you, as well as whether there’s a public interest in the information—for example, information about financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials,” Google’s takedown request page reads.
This is the most uncertain aspect of the CJEU ruling. Google’s web form states that the company itself will assess each request – which must be submitted along with photo ID — and try to “balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public’s right to know and distribute information.”
Leaving aside the fact that Google should not be put in the position of playing censor, that’s an awful lot of work and expense, and some European officials are terrified about the possibility of the takedown procedure being automated. Germany, for example, is considering a whole new system of “cyber courts” to provide arbitration.
Indeed, Google’s web form suggests that the company hasn’t yet decided what to do with the requests it receives:
We’re working to finalize our implementation of removal requests under European data protection law as soon as possible. In the meantime, please fill out the form below and we will notify you when we start processing your request. We appreciate your patience.
The form is an “initial effort” and the company will refine its approach in cooperation with “data protection authorities and others over the coming months,” Google said. Those “others” will include a committee that the company has just set up, with non-Googlers including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and United Nations free expression rapporteur Frank LaRue, to advise Google on the best way forward.