Google Inc. will have to change how it applies the right to be forgotten to its websites beyond the European Union under rules drafted by the EU’s privacy chiefs.
The guidelines also rebuke the owner of the world’s most-used search engine for routinely notifying news outlets about story links it has removed -- a process that has thrown some people who’d sought extra privacy back into the media spotlight.
“All the extensions are included, including the .com,” Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, head of the EU group of 28 privacy watchdogs, told reporters in Brussels today. “There is no legal basis for routine transmissions from Google, or any other search engines, to editors,” she said. “It may, in some cases be necessary, but not as a routine and not as an obligation, as Google said.”
Data protection regulators agreed on the guidelines after a two-day meeting, which will push the Mountain View, California-based company to apply privacy requests from EU residents to its primary Google.com site in the U.S.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has argued that a ruling in May by the EU’s top court -- in which it ordered search links tied to individuals cut when those people contend the material is irrelevant or outdated -- didn’t need to be extended to the U.S. site.
While Google.com gets fewer than 5 percent of user searches in Europe, according to the European Commission, the May court ruling could change the behavior of Internet users if links are de-listed only from European domain names.
“One of the natural consequences” for implementing the EU court ruling “is that people do use Google more flexibly,” Paul Bernal, a lecturer in law at the University of East Anglia in England, said by phone. If “you can’t find what you want in Google.co.uk, then you use Google.com.”
The right-to-be-forgotten rules add to separate demands for curbs on Google’s market power being considered by lawmakers this week. EU antitrust regulators should weigh breaking up search engines if efforts to resolve an antitrust case fail, according to members of the European Parliament who will vote tomorrow on a resolution to rein in the company.
The common position of the so-called Article 29 Working Party “is the position of all national” data protection authorities, said Falque-Pierrotin, who also leads France’s privacy watchdog.
While the guidelines aren’t legally binding, national regulators can use them to exert pressure on Google and take legal steps to make it comply, Falque-Pierrotin said.
“We haven’t yet seen the Article 29 Working Party’s guidelines, but we will study them carefully when they’re published,” Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, said in an e-mail.
The guidelines, which will be published by the end of the week, apply to search links on Google sites outside the bloc that are still viewable in the EU. Regulators have complained that information blocked on EU websites shouldn’t be easily accessible by visiting Google in other countries by changing a few characters on the browser address line.
Google has removed 41.5 percent, or 208,520 links of a total of 502,977 links it has evaluated since the EU court ruling in May, according to data last updated yesterday on Google’s transparency report. So far, it has received 174,226 requests for removal, according to the report.
The right to be forgotten has been widely criticized in the U.S. and Britain, amid complaints that it inhibits free speech.
Case by Case
National regulators will use the guidelines to decide on a case-by-case basis on specific complaints they get from individuals who don’t agree with a decision taken by a search engine.
“We have consulted the search engines,” including Google, Yahoo! Inc. and Microsoft Corp., “we also have heard the information, comments and contributions made through the Google tour in Europe,” said Falque-Pierrotin.
Earlier this month, in Brussels, the company concluded a series of seven public hearings across Europe to discuss the implications of the ruling.
“It’s not our intention to give good marks or bad marks” to one search engine over another, said Falque-Pierrotin. “Google, like other search engines, have been surprised by the ruling, because of the new obligations they have to respect now.”