Google is going to tour Europe with a band of external advisers this fall to discuss a landmark ruling by Europe's top court that gave people the right to have personal information excluded from search engine listings in Europe.
Under this so-called right-to-be-forgotten, search engines such as Google could be forced upon request to remove results for queries that include a person's name, if the results shown are inadequate, no longer relevant, or excessive.
Since the May ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), Google has received over 70,000 take-down requests covering more than 250,000 web pages.
Google has also started adding a warning to some search results on its European sites, saying some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. And last week, it started telling Web masters which links to content on their website were removed, including links to articles on websites of several British media outlets.
Some of the links to British news articles were erroneously removed, and have since been reinstated, said David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer in an opinion piece published by the Guardian newspaper on Friday.
In deciding what to remove, search engines must also have regard to the public interest, which makes the removal tests "very vague and subjective," Drummond said.
So far, removal requests have highlighted difficult value judgments. Google, for example, has been asked by former politicians to remove links to posts that criticize their policies in office. Violent criminals have asked for links to articles about their crimes to be deleted and professionals including architects and teachers have asked to remove links to bad reviews. Moreover, people asked to remove links to comments that they have written themselves and now regret, Drummond said.
"In each case someone wants the information hidden, while others might argue that it should be out in the open," he said, adding that the removal process is still very much a work in progress.
In order to deal with difficult value judgements and the question of how to balance one person's right to privacy with another's right to know, Google has set up an advisory council of external advisors that is going to tour Europe to discuss the ruling in public meetings this autumn, Drummond said.
They will also prepare a public report that will include recommendations for particularly difficult removal requests and it will also include procedural steps that could improve accountability and transparency for websites and citizens, he said
The external advisors comprise people active in the tech sector, data protection, academia, the media, and civil society. They include for instance Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and former German minister of justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger . Executive chairman and former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, and Drummond himself will also be part of the council.
People interested in the matter can give their opinion on the council's website.
"It's a complex issue, with no easy answers. So a robust debate is both welcome and necessary as, on this issue at least, no search engine has an instant or perfect answer," Drummond said.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to [email protected]