Google Inc., complying with a top court ruling that backs European citizens’ right to delete personal information on the Internet, received 12,000 requests in the first day of offering an online removal form.
The world’s biggest search provider set up the website on May 29, following a ruling by the EU Court of Justice earlier this month that citizens’ fundamental rights could be harmed by information on the Web and where there’s no public interest in publishing it. Google has also formed a group of Internet experts, including Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, to advise the company on the ruling.
The right-to-be-forgotten ruling was a surprise for Google and other companies already facing greater scrutiny over privacy practices in the 28-nation EU. The bloc is seeking to increase the powers of data-protection watchdogs to impose fines for violations. Revelations of widespread U.S. spying on EU citizens, including top politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have added to the clamor for privacy safeguards.
“It was about time” Google took measures to comply with European data protection laws that have existed since 1995, Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner wrote in an e-mailed statement. “The move demonstrates that fears of practical impossibility raised before were unfounded.”
Larry Page, Google’s chief executive officer, said the ruling may encourage repressive regimes seeking to censor the Internet, according to an interview in the Financial Times.
“It will be used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things,” the FT quoted him as saying. Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, confirmed Page’s comments.
The court decision creates extra headaches for U.S. Web companies, which have businesses based on handling tremendous amounts of data that often aren’t touched by humans. It paves the way for European users to flood the firms with Web takedown requests, adding to costs.
The shares of Google were little changed at $559.89 at the close in New York yesterday.
The right to be forgotten and the right to free information “are not foes but friends,” Reding said. “It’s not about protecting one at the expense of the other but striking the right balance in order to protect both.”
“The European court made it clear that two rights do not make a wrong and has given clear directions on how this balance can be found and where the limits of the right to be forgotten lie,” she said. “It is mass surveillance not data protection that legitimizes the actions of repressive regimes.”
The EU’s move toward tougher rules may make it harder for Internet startups, according to Page’s FT interview.
“We’re a big company and we can respond to these kind of concerns and spend money on them and deal with them, it’s not a problem for us,” he told the FT. “But as a whole, as we regulate the Internet, I think we’re not going to see the kind of innovation we’ve seen.”
The new special committee has five members, including Wikipedia’s Wales, Frank La Rue from the United Nations, Peggy Valcke of the University of Leuven law school, academic Jose Luis Pinar, and Oxford University’s Luciano Floridi.
Floridi said in a statement that the committee would evaluate the ethical and legal challenges posed by the Web, “which will probably require some hard and rather philosophical thinking.”
The EU ruling requires Google to make “difficult judgments about an individual’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to know,” Mountain View, California-based Google said.
The European top court was wrong to force Google to take on the role of “cyberspace’s policeman, since from a technical point of view it’s an impossible task to remove every single link,” Domenico Colella, a lawyer at Orsingher Ortu in Milan, said in a phone interview.
The EU court ruling stemmed from Google’s challenge to an order by the Spanish data-protection authority for it to remove information on a man whose house was auctioned off for failing to pay taxes, one of 200 instances where Spain has asked Google to pull content.
Spain’s data agency “welcomes that Google finally responds to what we have been demanding for several years -- and makes available to citizens a tool to communicate and resolve potential damages to their rights caused by the search engine when it disseminates personal information without any relevance or public interest,” Jose Luis Rodriguez Alvarez, head of the authority, wrote in an e-mailed statement.
Hamburg’s privacy watchdog criticized Google’s request for photo identification documents to authenticate a user’s request, saying private companies weren’t allowed to store scanned copies of ID cards and passports under German law. People should avoid sending such scans and should black out unnecessary details, it said. It was “unfortunate” that Google hadn’t discussed with Hamburg how to implement the ruling, the regulator said in an-mailed statement.
Google can accept other forms of identification, including a utility bill, if a person has concerns over photo ID, the company said in an e-mail.
European privacy officials will discuss the consequences of the EU ruling next week, French and Luxembourg authorities said. (Bloomberg)