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Google seeks public opinion on 'right to be forgotten'

The search giant wants people to chime in on a European ruling requiring it to remove search result links in response to individual requests. Will it help the debate?


Does the public have a right to information about the nature, volume, and outcome of removal requests made to search engines? Should individuals be able to request removal of links to information published by a government? These are just a couple of the questions thrown out by Google in a new Web form asking people affected by the "right to be forgotten" ruling to share their opinions.

The European Union right to be forgotten ruling, which went into effect in May, requires Google and other search engines to take down search result links pertaining to individuals who believe that such links invade their privacy or harm them in some way. The ruling has been controversial as it walks the tightrope between privacy and free speech.

Google has criticized the ruling but has also attempted to comply with it. Earlier this month, Google said that as of July 18 it has received 91,000 requests involving more than 328,000 individual webpages since May. Google is only taking down links in its European search engines, meaning that if users search for the same content on its US-based website they can see the results that were removed in Europe.

Google's recently formed advisory council has scheduled several public discussions on the matter that will use information collected by the new Web form. But will such discussions lend new insight to the matter or confuse it even further?

The advisory council's role is to discuss and debate how to balance the privacy rights of an individual with the right to free speech and determine what principles Google should apply in making such decisions on a case-by-case basis. For example, should a politician be granted a request to have negative press about his time in office removed? Should a criminal be granted a request for links about his criminal record taken down? Should a link to an embarrassing photo posted by an individual himself be removed?

Members of the advisory council include Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond. But the group includes mostly third parties, such as Wikipedia Founder James Wales, Oxford University Professor of Philosophy Luciano Floridi, and former Director of the Spanish Data Protection Agency José-Luis Piñar. Some of those people may be more sympathetic to Google's "free speech" argument, while others may be more concerned about the takedown requests from the individuals.

To elicit feedback from the public, Google's new Web form poses several challenging questions aimed at all people affected by the ruling, meaning any citizen of the European Union. Those questions are as follows:

  • Are there any procedural issues raised by the case (e.g., responsibilities of search engines, data protection authorities, publishers, individuals)?
  • What is the nature and delineation of a public figure's right to privacy?
  • How should we differentiate content in the public interest from content that is not?
  • Does the public have a right to information about the nature, volume, and outcome of removal requests made to search engines?
  • What is the public's right to information when it comes to reviews of professional or consumer services? Or criminal histories?
  • Should individuals be able to request removal of links to information published by a government?
  • Do publishers of content have a right to information about requests to remove it from search?

People have until August 11 to offer their comments and opinions. The form itself is also available in other EU languages, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Polish.

The advisory council will hold several public meetings with experts who will offer evidence, largely based on the information collected through the Web form. Those meetings are scheduled for the following dates and locations:

  • September 9 in Madrid, Spain
  • September 10 in Rome, Italy
  • September 25 in Paris, France
  • September 30 in Warsaw, Poland
  • October 14 in Berlin, Germany
  • October 16 in London, UK
  • TBD in November or December: Brussels

With so many individuals and experts getting involved in this public discussion, will Google find the help it seeks to better make the appropriate decision on each takedown request? That remains to be seen. The search giant certainly seems to want to extend the debate, if only to show the European Union publicly that it's trying to grapple with a ruling with which it simply does not agree.

(Via TechCrunch)