Google says it's begun changing Web results for European Union citizens who want to get rid of embarrassing content that shows up when their name is searched.
The Web giant will delete some search results at the request of its users, following a court ruling that EU citizens have a right to ask for the removal of less-than-flattering personal information.
Google European spokesman Al Verney said the process will likely be slow and that there is a significant backlog to work through. At last report, more than 50,000 people from multiple nationalities had filed requests to have information removed.
“Each request has to be assessed individually,” Verney said.
Several weeks after the May ruling by the European Court of Justice on the so-called “right to be forgotten,” the company set up an online interface for users to register their complaints.
The company said it started taking down results this week.
Companies like Google already routinely field takedown requests for material that violates defamation or copyright, but this is different. The unappealable ruling published by the European Court of Justice requires all search engines, not just Google, to consider takedown requests that are merely embarrassing or harmful, according to NPR.
"Data belongs to the individual, not to the company," EU Commissioner Viviane Reding said in hailing the decision on Facebook. "Unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered — by law — to request erasure of this data."
Following the initial release of the ruling, Google said it was taken by surprise by the decision.
"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general. We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the Advocate General's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out," a Google representative told CNET.
Google had previously argued that the company merely indexes information, rather than control it, and amending the search results amounts to censorship.
"In our view, only the original publisher can take the decision to remove such content," Bill Echikson, Google's "Head of Free Expression," argued last year. "Once removed from the source Web page, content will disappear from a search engine's index."
Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote in the Stanford Law Review that the ruling “could transform Google, for example, into a censor-in-chief for the European Union, rather than a neutral platform," according to the Telegraph.
“This ruling opens the door to large-scale private censorship in Europe,” James Waterworth, head of the Brussels office for the Computer and Communications Industry Association told the New York Times. “While the ruling likely means to offer protections, our concern is it could also be misused by politicians or others with something to hide.”
Google is not releasing information on what percentage of complaints appear to fall into areas the court specified as potentially objectionable: results that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.”
Europe’s national data protection agencies have said they expect a mixed bag of "legitimate" complaints, as well as some that are clearly not and some borderline cases.
Critics of the ruling say removing result links is censorship, and will lead to politicians and criminals requesting elimination of information. But supporters note the court specified Google should not remove links to information when the public’s right to know about it outweighs an individual’s right to privacy.
Under the system Google has set up, any search on a user’s name from within the European Union is supposed to show a warning that information may have been removed due to privacy considerations, though the system is not yet fully operational.
In cases where the company decides to reject a response to scrub results, it informs the person that complained of its decision. Then it tells them how to contact their national data protection agency if they disagree with the decision and want to pursue the matter further.
Google is only deleting information that appears on its own results pages. It has no control over information on external websites, which did not fall under the court’s ruling.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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