Ruling Has Become Latest Battleground Over Freedom of Speech and the Right to Online Privacy
European Union privacy watchdogs are raising concerns about Google Inc. GOOGL +2.66% 's implementation of the bloc's new "right to be forgotten" rule ahead of a meeting with search engines next week, EU privacy officials said, raising the specter of a conflict over how to apply the court decision.
The main body grouping together the EU's 28 national privacy regulators said Thursday that it has invited Google, Microsoft Corp. MSFT +0.37% and Yahoo Inc. YHOO -0.45% to a meeting next Thursday in Brussels to discuss the surprise May ruling that gives individuals the right to request the removal of information about them from search results.
In the run-up to the meeting, regulators have also been publicly and privately pressuring the search giant, for instance pushing it to stop notifying websites when it removes links to their pages arguing it undermines the right to be forgotten, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Microsoft confirmed that it plans to attend the meeting. Google and Yahoo said they plan to cooperate with privacy officials, but declined Thursday to comment on any specific meetings.
The May ruling has already become a battleground in the war over where to draw the line between freedom of speech and the right to online privacy in an era of instant access to data. Supporters of the new decision have said it represents an overdue check on the power of Web giants like Google, while free-speech advocates have decried the decision as a gateway to censorship that will whitewash the Web.
One flash point is Google's refusal to remove name-search results from its main Google.com search engine. It prefers to make a narrower removal of name searches in the European versions of its search engine, such as google.fr or google.co.uk. That position has already raised hackles with regulators in Germany and elsewhere, privacy officials have said.
"It's a problem we've clearly identified," said Gwendal Le Grand, director of technology and innovation at French watchdog Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés. "It puts the effectiveness of the entire decision in question."
Data watchdogs in Europe, who met Tuesday to discuss right-to-be-forgotten guidelines that they hope to issue in the fall, also plan to raise the issue of how Google has been sending notifications to the websites in question, Mr. Le Grand said. Since Google began removing links under the new right to be forgotten, it has sent those websites notifications of which link has been the subject of a removal, albeit without naming the person who made the request.
Those disclosures—a handful of which have become public—have, nevertheless, created a wave of controversy about the ruling. Some cases have led to an outcry that Google is suppressing news articles, pushing the site to change some of its decisions. In some cases, the disclosures have also made it possible to identify the person making the request, leading to news stories that have the opposite effect from being "forgotten."
"The current implementation process partly undermines the right to be forgotten," said Johannes Caspar, head of the Hamburg data-protection regulator, which is the lead privacy regulator for Google in Germany.
Journalism advocates say there is a danger Google could be forced to stop notifications for removals, which it routinely sends for other kinds of removals, such as copyright takedowns. "The danger here is that Google could be the judge and jury in its own court," said John Battle, the head of legal compliance at British news agency ITN. "Without notification, no one can challenge their decisions."
Regulators have also raised concerns about whether Google has given enough detail in its explanations when it rejects requests on the grounds that there is a public interest in the information, and want search engines to make their test for removing data more clear, officials said. Appeals have started to come in to data watchdogs in multiple countries, the officials added.
In Ireland, for example, Google rejected someone's request to remove a link to a newspaper article with potentially embarrassing information about the individual. In one French rejection letter reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Google provided a one-paragraph explanation of its rationale, saying that the URL the user had requested be removed "could be of particular interest to people planning to use your professional services."
Write to Sam Schechner at firstname.lastname@example.org and Lisa Fleisher at email@example.com
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