Google Inc. is hitting the road in a quest for answers to questions left hanging by European Union judges who delivered an Internet “right to be forgotten.”
The world’s largest search provider, which opposes the EU Court of Justice May judgment that told it to remove certain personal information from search results on request, plans public hearings in seven European cities, kicking off in Madrid on Sept. 9. Google’s critics say it’s a self-serving attempt to steer a debate that belongs to regulators and courts.
“The meetings are a cross between a lobbying exercise and a brazen publicity stunt,” said Simon Davies, a privacy advocate and an associate director of the enterprise unit at the London School of Economics. “While there are two or three open minds on the company’s advisory group that oversees the exercise, the process appears to be fundamentally skewed against privacy and in favor of publication rights.”
Google wants a “robust debate” on the ruling and how it should be applied, according to its top lawyer David Drummond. Its advisers include Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales who has described the right as “deeply immoral,” according to a report in the Daily Telegraph, as well as a former Spanish privacy regulator and an ex-justice minister of Germany.
Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Drummond are among the advisers who will draft a report on the ruling to discuss the implications of the court case for Internet users and news publishers and make recommendations for how the company should deal with requests to delete criminal convictions.
Drummond said in July that Google has struggled to weigh the court’s order to remove certain links from a search on a person’s name due to its “very vague and subjective tests” on what information was in the public interest and shouldn’t be removed.
Privacy regulators have criticized Mountain View, California-based Google’s steps to tell Web publishers when it is removing links to their sites. Drummond said Google does this to be transparent. Regulators are drafting guidelines on how they should handle any disputes by people who were unhappy at how Google handles their initial request for links to be removed.
The goal of the forums will be to find a convergence of views on the tension between the basic principles of privacy and freedom of speech, said Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a member of Google’s committee of experts.
The panel will need to move beyond the hyperbole on both sides of the debate, Floridi said, citing statements by European politicians during recent elections and comments by Wales that the ruling amounts to censorship.
“Censorship would be the removal of information for political or religious reasons,” Floridi said. “It doesn’t help to throw around big, loaded words like that when you’re trying to find a convergence of views.”
Wales declined to comment on the meetings, according to an e-mail from his assistant saying he didn’t have time to answer any questions.
The first event takes place in Spain, the trigger for the EU court ruling that changed Google’s business when the company fought an order by the country’s data-protection regulator to remove a link with details to a state auction of houses to cover tax debt that popped up on a search for Mario Costeja Gonzalez.
The man’s lawyer, Joaquin Munoz Rodriguez of Abanlex in Madrid, says he’ll be at the event next week and “holding a public consultation could be a good idea, though it remains to be seen who will turn up and whether there’ll be real opponents.”
Spain’s data-protection agency won’t be there, saying it “does not take part in public open consultations promoted by companies or individuals subject to data-protection law whose activity it has to supervise,” according to an e-mail. The authority is addressing issues raised by the ruling by meeting Google and working with other EU privacy regulators, it said.
Davies criticized the event as “stage managed” because Google has required participants to submit their views in advance. Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, said the company will hear from invited experts and also from people in the audience at the events, who could sign up on the Internet to attend.
“I hope Google take the opportunity to use these meetings to explain its procedures and be more transparent and receptive about how it could meet the requirements of this judgment,” said Chris Pounder, director of Amberhawk, a company that trains data-protection officials. “I suspect however, it may use these meetings in order to garner opposition to the ECJ judgment.”
The European Commission said it welcomed Google’s discussions.
They “do not detract from the fact that the implementation of the judgment will be overseen by the national data-protection authorities and ultimately by national courts,” said commission spokesman Michele Cercone in an e-mail from Brussels. EU governments are also discussing the right to be forgotten as part of new data-protection rules, he said.
The Madrid meeting will be followed by an event in Rome on Sept. 10, one in Paris on Sept. 25, Warsaw on Sept. 30, Berlin on Oct. 14, London on Oct. 16 and Brussels on Nov. 4. Anyone interested in attending can sign up online about two weeks before the events, Google said.
The EU “says there is no compromise, privacy is the ultimate right,” Oxford’s Floridi said. “It doesn’t have to be like that where there is a winner and a loser,” he said. “We need to find a compromise.”