Google Panel Said to Favor Limiting Forgotten Right to EU

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A panel of experts enlisted by Google Inc. to review privacy issues following a European Union court ruling may recommend limiting the “right to be forgotten” to websites within the 28-nation bloc.

The report would put the group at odds with EU data-protection regulators who have urged the company to allow people to seek the deletion of links to some personal data on the company’s main U.S. website. The issue is dividing the eight-person Google panel, according to one member of the panel who declined to be identified because the report isn’t public.

“The majority of the members, in my view, will say that the right to be forgotten should apply only as far as European domains are concerned and not beyond,” Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former German justice minister and another panel member, said in an interview. “The members are still debating about this issue before the report can be finalized.”

A ruling by the EU Court of Justice last year created a right to be forgotten, allowing people to seek the deletion of links on search engines if the information was outdated or irrelevant. The ruling created a furor, with Mountain View, California-based Google appointing the panel to advise it on implementing the law.

The Google advisory group, which includes Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, visited seven European cities, from Rome to Berlin, listening to academics and public officials.

Right Balance

Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, said the final report wasn’t ready. The company has received 206,780 requests to remove 751,065 links from its website to date, according to its website.

“We’ve been working hard to strike the right balance in implementing the European court’s ruling,” Verney said in a statement. “We think it’s important to be transparent about removals, whilst also protecting individual privacy, and we’re applying the ruling across the whole of Europe.”

The deletion of links beyond the 28-nation EU was one of two issues that created an initial split between Google and data-protection regulators. 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.

The company’s policy of notifying the media about deleted links to stories on their websites also sparked the ire of regulators.

‘Constructive’ Report

“Not all points could be reached with everybody in agreement,” said Luciano Floridi, a philosophy professor at the University of Oxford, who is a member of the panel. Floridi, who didn’t want to discuss the content of the report before the final version was agreed on, said it would be “constructive and quite helpful” for search-engine companies.

The debate about the geographical scope of the ruling risks being thrown back in the hands of judges, according to one EU official.

“The question whether Google.com needs to remove info will for sure go to court again,” Paul Nemitz, director of fundamental rights and citizenship at the European Commission, said at an event in Berlin Tuesday night. “It would be a scandal if Google.com doesn’t remove information.”

Finding an agreement on the application of the right to be forgotten won’t be easy, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said at the event in Berlin.

Highly Controversial

“I personally tend to the position of” the EU data regulators “to include all domains because Google could otherwise easily circumvent the rules,” she said at the Berlin event. “It’s a highly controversial issue.”

While Floridi says he thinks links should be cut only in one country, “the balance that can be reached is to have a pan-European” approach to remove links from Google’s European sites -- as the company is doing.

“Most people stick to their own local search engine. A very small percentage of people, we’re talking 5 to 10 percent, ever checks a search engine in a different language or a different country which means that if you delete the local news for the local people, then mission accomplished,” said Floridi.