Google’s top lawyer explains dilemma over EU’s “right to be forgotten” law

David Drummond, senior vice president for corporate development and chief legal officer at Google Inc., at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California on March 11, 2011.  AFP PHOTO/Ryan Anson

Google is unsure how to apply “very vague and subjective tests” to the more than 70,000 removal requests that have landed on its doorstep in the wake of a recent court ruling, according to the company’s chief legal officer, David Drummond.

In a Guardian article titled “We need to talk about the right to be forgotten,” Drummond sheds new light on a controversial legal process that lets EU citizens order Google to remove search listings they dislike. Drummond described who is coming out of the woodwork to demand takedowns, and the dilemma Google faces:

former politicians wanting posts removed that criticise their policies in office; serious, violent criminals asking for articles about their crimes to be deleted; bad reviews for professionals like architects and teachers; comments that people have written themselves (and now regret). In each case someone wants the information hidden, while others might argue that it should be out in the open.

According to Drummond, the scale and subtlety of the process means that Google is now reviewing each removal request on an individual basis. Under the terms of the European Court of Justice’s court ruling in May, Europeans have a right to delete search results that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive” — but the court provided little guidance as to what exactly that means. And while there’s a “journalistic exception,” search engines like Google can’t invoke it.

“It’s a bit like saying the book can stay in the library but cannot be included in the library’s card catalogue,” according to Drummond, who notes that the requests so far cover more than a quarter of a million web pages.

While stating that Google disagrees with the court ruling, Drummond adds that it’s “hard not to empathise with some of the requests that we’ve seen,” citing requests from an innocent man to remove stories about a crime, and one from a mother requesting the removal of links to stories about her abused daughter.

It’s perhaps significant that Drummond chose the Guardian to publish his piece. Last week, Google removed Guardian stories about a dishonest referee from its search results, which led some to suggest that the company was deliberately drumming up controversy to call attention to the problems with the court ruling (it has since restored the articles).

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