Google (GOOG) is now complying with a European Union court’s requirement that it create a process for people who want outdated or inaccurate information about them removed from its search engine—but only after Chief Executive Officer Larry Page said the court’s ruling in favor of the “right to be forgotten” empowers governments to restrict online communications and risks damaging the next generation of Internet companies in Europe.
On Friday the company launched a Web form that allows people to submit URLs they would like removed, along with an explanation of the problem. Those who file requests must also say which country they live in and include a copy of a valid form of ID, which Google says it won’t use for anything besides authenticating the request. Google will then review each request to determine whether the information is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.” The company is still determining how it will handle removal requests. The links themselves will continue to exist; they will simply not show up in search results shown within the European Union.
This isn’t going to be a straightforward process, and Google will have to weigh the right to privacy against the right of the public to obtain relevant information. It will rely on a committee of Internet experts for help balancing these two objectives. Con artists may not be able to make it harder to find out about their involvement in financial scams, for instance. But for a man who had to sell his house to settle a debt—and the record of that sale is the first thing that shows up when someone searches his name—the court’s ruling could provide some relief.
Google shared some information with the Financial Times about what kinds of requests it has received since the ruling. Information related to frauds or scams made up 30 percent of submissions; links related to convictions of violent crimes, 20 percent; and those related to arrests for child pornography, 12 percent. You could definitely argue that removing such information from Google deprives the public of relevant information.
Mario Costeja González, the Spanish man who brought the complaint to have records removed from the search engine showing that his home had been repossessed, which led to the EU court’s ruling, told the Financial Times that Google’s changes were enough for him. He said Google is now “perfect” and congratulated the company for complying with the order. “I think this is the correct move. You have to provide a path for communication between the user and the search engine. Now that communication can take place,” he told the FT.
The ruling has raised hackles among free-speech defenders. But last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Paul Ford wrote that Google will be able to coexist with the right to be forgotten. While Ford worked at Harper’s, the magazine occasionally fulfilled requests to keep certain pages from its digital archives from being indexed by search archives. (The pages continued to exist; they were just harder to find.) Google has also allowed people to ask that posts from old Usenet discussions be removed from its index.
A big question now is how many links will end up being removed from Google, and whether this will have any substantial impact on the flow of information over the European arm of the Internet. Harper’s and Usenet are hardly Google-scale: Ford says the magazine got only a few requests a year, usually from people who had little presence on the Internet and were thus more likely to be identified by old letters to the editor. Google is unlikely to get off so easy. It says it has already received thousands of requests from Europeans who want to be forgotten, and that the big wave of requests hasn’t started yet.