Paedophiles, scandal-hit politicians and others seeking to cleanse their online reputations are demanding that Google remove any links to inconvenient truths about their past, in the wake of a historic legal judgement, it has emerged.
The 'take down' requests to the world's biggest internet search engine came after a European Court ruling on Tuesday that people have the “right to be forgotten.” The controversial decision, by the Court of Justice of the European Union, was in response to a case brought by a Spanish man who complained that an auction notice of his repossessed home on Google's search results had infringed his privacy. It applies to all web search companies and will affect hundreds of millions of people living in Europe.
The ruling, described as “disappointing” by Google, means that web search engines face legal action if they refuse to remove information deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.”
And it has emerged that a former British politician seeking re-election has demanded that links to information about his behaviour in office be removed, while a man convicted of possessing child abuse images has requested links to pages about his conviction be deleted. And a doctor wants negative reviews from patients removed from the results, according to the BBC.
The court decision allowing such demands is in contrast to assurances made by the EU's advocate general last year that search engines were not obliged to honour such 'take down' requests. And although EU Commissioner Viviane Reding supported this week's ruling as “a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans”, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales dubbed it “one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I've ever seen” and warned: “When will a European Court demand that Wikipedia censor an article with truthful information because an individual doesn't like it?”
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman, Google, admitted there are “many open questions” when asked about the impact of the ruling, during the company's annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. “A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google's perspective that's a balance,” he commented. “Google believes having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.”
The company will need an “army of removal experts” to comply with the ruling, according to a source close to the internet giant. And concern is mounting that there will be a wave of demands by people wishing to clean up their past. Emma Carr, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “It is hardly surprising that people, intent on rewriting their own history, have already requested that Google remove links to articles referring to their past.” She added: “Those arguing that this ruling is a successful move towards 'the right to be forgotten' are quite simply wrong, it is going to be of huge detriment to freedom of speech.” And Ms Carr warned: “There is little doubt that making intermediaries responsible for the actions of the content of other people will inevitably lead to greater surveillance and a risk of censorship.”
In a statement, a Google spokesman said: “The ruling has significant implications for how we handle take down requests.” They added: “As soon as we have thought through exactly how this will work, which may take several weeks, we will let our users know.”