Thousands of people have requested search-engine giant Google to remove unflattering listings from its database under a new European law that grants people the right to disappear online.
In May, the European Court of Justice of the European Union found that Google and other tech companies that provide web listings must reasonably honor a person’s request for privacy by removing links that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.”
The ruling stemmed from a complaint lodged by Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spaniard who felt that a newspaper listing from 1998 that focused on some of his old debts should be removed because the debts had long been settled. Gonzalez said the newspaper listing, which had been indexed by Google and other companies, violated European Union data protection laws.
The court agreed, saying that Google and other search engines had a reasonable expectation to remove old or outdated information from web listings. However, the court found that Google did not need to remove requests on links pertaining to certain matters of public interest, such as news articles on medical malpractice or those that detail the misgivings of government officials.
For its part, Google launched an online form last week that offered citizens living within the European Union to request a review of outdated or irrelevant information in its database for removal. According to a company spokesperson, more than 12,000 people had filled out a request to have information removed from the search engine one day after the form went live.
Google and others are now tasked with figuring out which information should be considered public and which listings must be removed under the EU court’s ruling.
“There is no legal oversight or appeals process built in to the ruling,” free speech advocate Jodie Ginsberg wrote for CNN.com. “The court simply leaves it up to Google and others to decide…what is and is not in the public interest.”
Google is already starting to take steps to figure out what information falls under the court order. Last month, it began assembling a panel of privacy experts to determine what information falls within and outside the scope of European privacy law with respect to its search results.
“After this ruling, it’s clear that we need to think deeply about the realities of the Internet age and we must find new, innovative ways to improve privacy protections for society as a whole,” committee panelist José-Luis Piñar wrote in a statement.
Google must now figure out how to sort through the thousands of requests it has received in order to fulfill most of them in an expeditious manner. Some legal experts had raised concerns that the company would not be able to handle the sheer volume of requests that were expected to come in.
But European privacy officials say Google’s formation of a privacy panel and its launch of the web form last week ease those concerns by proving the company is able to comply with the law.
“We will now need to look into how the announced tool will work in practice,” European justice commissioner Viviane Reding told The New York Times. “The move demonstrates that fears of practical impossibility raised before were unfounded.”
Google’s form and the “Right to Be Forgotten” law applies only to the company’s country-specific web services; in other words, links that are removed from Google’s German website Google.de will still appear on Google.com.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.