Google grappling with 70,000 'right to be forgotten' requests

The search giant's plight reveals the challenges inherent in trying to comply with a controversial and complex law.

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Google is having a tough time dealing with a new European law that requires it to remove links to search results upon user request.

In a column published Thursday for The Guardian, Google chief legal officer David Drummond said that since May when the "right to be forgotten" ruling went into effect, the company has received more than 70,000 takedown requests encompassing 250,000 individual webpages. In most cases, Google's team is reviewing the requests from users who provide limited information and not much context.

In May, the European Union Court of Justice ruled that European citizens have a right to ask search engines to remove any results that might infringe upon their privacy. Google quickly condemned the decision, calling it a "disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general." The ruling itself puts the burden on search engines to review takedown requests, determine which ones are valid and which are not, and then take the appropriate action. The ruling also falls firmly into the neverending debate between privacy versus the public's right to know.

Drummond said that Google still disagrees with the ruling but is doing its best to comply. That's not an easy task since the tests used to determine which search results should be removed are "very vague and subjective," he added.

Google's chief legal officer also cited examples of just a few takedown requests. Former politicians want links to critical posts removed. Violent criminals ask that articles about their crimes be taken down. Career professionals want bad reviews deleted. In some cases, people have even asked that links to comments they wrote about themselves be erased.

The messy aspect of the ruling came into play last week after Google removed a link to a 2007 BBC story from its search results, prompting concerns from the British broadcaster. In response, independent computer security analyst Graham Cluley told CNET that attempts by individuals to remove information from search results have the potential to backfire.

To determine which requests should be granted, Google's team takes a few factors into account, according to Drummond. Is the information about a celebrity or other public figure? Does it come from a credible news source? How recent is the information? Does it involve political speech? Does the information come from a government? Still, no matter many criteria the team adopts, the outcomes will "always be difficult and debatable judgments," Drummond acknowledged.

To try to ease the process, Google is setting up what Drummond called an advisory council of experts, which will be announced on Friday. The goal is to incorporate people from the media, academia, the tech sector, data protection, and other areas to provide independent advice to Google as it struggles to deal with a law that it clearly doesn't like but is obligated to follow.

About the author

Journalist, software trainer, and Web developer Lance Whitney writes columns and reviews for CNET, Computer Shopper, Microsoft TechNet, and other technology sites. His first book, "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time," was published by Wiley & Sons in November 2012.

 

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