In a blog post today Google’s David Drummond, Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer outlined Google’s plans to deal with ‘right to be forgotten’ requests.
Last May the European Court of Justice ruled that Google must remove links to stories that include the names of people if the stories are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive.” There has been quite a bit of furor about the ruling with many people believing this is just the first step toward rampant censorship. Others have criticized the ruling based on the fact that the courts have put Google in charge of determining which requests for removal are valid, which requests are efforts to cover up potentially damning information and which requests should be ignored because they are not in the best interests of the public.
It’s a tricky and slippery slope and Google appears to be making an effort to tread carefully.
In the blog Mr. Drummond states:
In the past we’ve restricted the removals we make from search to a very short list. It includes information deemed illegal by a court, such as defamation, pirated content (once we’re notified by the rights holder), malware, personal information such as bank details, child sexual abuse imagery and other things prohibited by local law (like material that glorifies Nazism in Germany).
But the European Court found that people have the right to ask for information to be removed from search results that include their names if it is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive.” In deciding what to remove, search engines must also have regard to the public interest. These are, of course, very vague and subjective tests. The court also decided that search engines don’t qualify for a “journalistic exception.” This means that The Guardian could have an article on its website about an individual that’s perfectly legal, but we might not legally be able to show links to it in our results when you search for that person’s name. It’s a bit like saying the book can stay in the library, it just cannot be included in the library’s card catalogue.
It’s for these reasons that we disagree with the ruling. That said, we obviously respect the court’s authority and are doing our very best to comply quickly and responsibly. It’s a huge task as we’ve had over 70,000 take-down requests covering 250,000 webpages since May. So we now have a team of people individually reviewing each application, in most cases with limited information and almost no context.
The examples we’ve seen so far highlight the difficult value judgments search engines and European society now face: former politicians wanting posts removed that criticize 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 it should be out in the open.
Of course, only two months in, our process is still very much a work in progress. That’s why we’ve also set up an advisory council of experts, the final membership of which we’re announcing today. These external experts from the worlds of academia, the media, data protection, civil society and the tech sector are serving as independent advisors to Google. The council will be asking for evidence and recommendations from different groups, and will hold public meetings this autumn across Europe to examine these issues more deeply. Its public report will include recommendations for particularly difficult removal requests (like criminal convictions); thoughts on the implications of the court’s decision for European Internet users, news publishers, search engines and others; and procedural steps that could improve accountability and transparency for websites and citizens.
The issues here at stake are important and difficult, but we’re committed to complying with the court’s decision.
Indeed, the requests are important and difficult and even the underlying decision by the European Court of Justice should probably be revisited and reexamined on a regular basis. But at least Google is making an effort to comply.
You can read Mr. Drummond’s complete blog posting here.