Bloomberg News

Google Takedown Notices Spark Controversy: Privacy Chief

July 25, 2014

Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin

Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, who heads a group of EU privacy regulators, said, “There has been a climate of controversy that’s been entertained in order to maybe endanger the right to be forgotten. It has led some people to say that the right to be forgotten leads to censorship of the press which is not the case” because only a link is removed from some search results. Photographer: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images

European Union privacy regulators continued to criticize Google Inc. (GOOG:US) a day after a data-protection summit where officials demanded the company justify its decision to notify publishers when removing links to personal data.

Google is the only company to notify websites that it is taking down links to material to comply with a court ruling that allows EU residents to erase references to personal data, said Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, who heads a group of EU privacy regulators.

“There has been a climate of controversy that’s been entertained in order to maybe endanger the right to be forgotten,” Falque-Pierrotin said in a telephone interview today. “It has led some people to say that the right to be forgotten leads to censorship of the press which is not the case” because only a link is removed from some search results.

Falque-Pierrotin’s comments come a day after regulators met with Google, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc.! on steps to implement the May court ruling on the “right to be forgotten.” Data-protection officials in Ireland and Germany have already complained about how Google, the largest search-engine company, has handled the issue.

Al Verney, a spokesman for the company in Brussels, declined to comment on the meeting and referred to a blog post by Google’s top lawyer earlier this month that said the company was “doing our best to be transparent about removals” and was avoiding communicating anything specific about why it takes down a page because that could violate a person’s privacy rights.

Vague, Subjective

David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, also said in the post that the court ruling set “very vague and subjective” tests on what information was in the public interest and shouldn’t be removed and didn’t allow a clear exemption for news articles.

U.K. newspapers The Guardian and The Telegraph and the British Broadcasting Corp. said earlier this month that Google told them it had removed links to articles, including stories about a Scottish soccer referee, to comply with the EU ruling. Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes said earlier this week that such notices may draw more attention to the personal information someone is seeking to hide.

The examples of the notifications made public “are very specific sometimes,” said Falque-Pierrotin. “I don’t know whether it’s done on purpose by Google, but I can see the result.”

While privacy regulators aren’t opposed to such notices, they need to reconcile competing interests, Falque-Pierrotin said. Regulators asked Google what legal reasons it was using to justify informing publishers.

91,000 Requests

Google told regulators at the meeting yesterday that it has taken down links in response to more than half of the requests it received seeking the right to be forgotten, a person familiar with the matter said yesterday. The company got more than 91,000 requests for links to be removed from its search engine as of July 18, covering 328,000 Internet addresses.

The 28 privacy regulators across Europe have received fewer than 50 complaints from people whose request to search engines was rejected, Falque-Pierrotin said. The watchdogs plan to agree on guidelines for handling these complaints in September or early October, she said.

Regulators asked the search engines at the meeting whether they are taking down information on all their sites available in Europe, such as google.com, or outside the bloc. Removing a link on a site in just one EU country “has no real effect” to someone seeking more privacy, Falque-Pierrotin said.

When Google removes a link, it does so across all its European websites, but not its U.S. google.com site.

Search engines were asked to tell the regulators by the end of July whether they refuse requests when a person wants to remove information he or she published online and how they notify users that some results might have been removed. They were asked to justify why they show such a notice when there’s no change to search results. Google displays a notice on searches for most names in Europe.

Gerard Lommel, Luxembourg’s data-protection regulator, said the questions would help officials draw up their guidelines and provide “food for further discussions in this matter.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Aoife White in Brussels at awhite62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at aaarons@bloomberg.net Peter Chapman


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