Google in fight to stop global removal of sensitive links

July 23, 2014 6:20 pm

Google in fight to stop global removal of sensitive links
By Murad Ahmed, European Technology Correspondent

Google is braced for a showdown with European privacy watchdogs over demands the continent’s “right to be forgotten” online is extended across the world, with sensitive links stripped from all global versions of the search engine.

Executives from Google and Microsoft will meet representatives from Europe’s data protection groups in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the implementation of the dramatic ruling in May by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The court gave citizens the right to ask internet search engines to remove embarrassing or sensitive results for queries that include their name.

People with knowledge of the matter said the watchdogs intend to raise a number of issues, arguing the US company’s response to the ECJ ruling has been inadequate. Among the calls from the group of 28 national privacy watchdogs is the removal of links from all versions of the search engine.

This would mean that links expunged from Google’s French, German or British sites, would also be stripped from Google.com, its American search engine. Privacy groups have complained that, because it is technically easy to access international versions of Google, removing links only from European sites is an ineffective response to the ECJ ruling.

Google is expected to reject these demands. Executives will point to its experience in Turkey, which demanded Google comply with local laws by removing videos from YouTube that insulted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.

Google complied within Turkey but allowed videos to be viewed elsewhere in the world. In 2008, following a number of Turkish court rulings, YouTube was entirely blocked within the country. The restrictions were removed two years later, though the site has been blocked intermittently since.

Another demand of the data protection groups will be that Google should stop telling publishers when links are removed, as well as stop issuing notices on the site telling users when links have been stripped from results.

Google, Microsoft and the commission nationals de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL), the French data protection agency leading the debate, declined to comment in advance of the meeting.

But people with knowledge of the process said that without a compromise Google could face legal action from national regulators within member states. Ultimately, the case may need to be heard by the ECJ, a prospect that could lead to Google facing many more years of litigation in Europe.

“This shows how difficult it is for [the ECJ ruling] to be effective, if it is less meant as a thumb on the scale and more meant as an absolute bar to people seeking certain information and being able to get to it,” said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of internet law at Harvard University.

“There will always be searchers who are determined to see something which circumvents the restrictions. But by the time you’ve designed the system to account for all leaks, you haven’t built a water pail, you’ve built a tank. That’s not desirable.”

But Ian Brown, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said the fact that the ruling in its current form applied only to European sites and so could easily be circumvented was “not a disaster for the judgment”. The ruling was likely to shape the principles on information on the internet in Europe, he added, so would have “some effect”.

Martine Reicherts, EU Commissioner for Justice, said that given the increasing public sensitivity over privacy issues, companies respecting the right to protection of personal data might have “a competitive advantage in the digital economy”. By reinforcing the rights of individuals online, she added, the proposed regulation would “boost trust between businesses and consumers”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.


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