An EU ruling, giving individuals the ‘right to be forgotten’ on the internet, has been criticized by UK journalists after Google deleted links to their articles from its search engine. Robert Peston, BBC News economics editor, last week accused Google of censorship and said the ruling will “curb freedom of expression and suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest.” The Guardian newspaper described the directive as a “huge challenge to press freedom.”
The right to be forgotten was applied against Google in May, following an appeal by a Spanish lawyer to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The court ruled that Google Spain should delete information about the 1998 repossession of the lawyer’s home and that any information deemed ‘inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant,’ must be removed from search engines if requested by an individual. Since then, Google has received more than 70,000 requests from across Europe to remove links to more than 267,000 webpages.
Among the first articles removed were a blog written by Robert Peston in 2007, criticising a senior banker, and another, in the Guardian in 2010, about a football referee who lied about a penalty decision. In both cases the journalists who wrote the articles argued they were in the public interest. Google later reversed its decision to remove links to the football referee story, following an appeal by the Guardian. Media experts say that Google’s indecision over which links to delete, demonstrated that the company must not be required to judge whether an article should be on the internet.
Mark Stephens, a London-based media lawyer, argued that “holding intermediaries responsible for determining what information is in the public interest is dangerous and unworkable: more than 100 billion searches occur each month on Google alone, which could in theory be subject to review-on-demand for adequacy and relevance, rather than accuracy or lawfulness.”
Stephens believes the new ruling would be biased towards influential sectors of society. “This overreaching judgment is far more likely to aid the powerful in attempts to rewrite history, than afford individuals more influence over their online identities,” he wrote soon after the judgment. The Index on Censorship also challenged the ruling: “It’s like the government devolving power to librarians to decide what books people can read (based on requests from the public) and then locking those books away,” it said in a statement. Campaigners say Google has deliberately applied the ruling too liberally, to create bad publicity and highlight its flaws.
Paul Bernal, lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia, believes that Google has chosen to delete links to stories by high profile journalists, such as Robert Peston, and Roy Greenslade, a Guardian media commentator, hoping they would loudly complain of press censorship.
Bernal is among a number of privacy campaigners who believe that although the recent ECJ directive is vague and difficult to implement, the principle is right. He said the concept should be clarified and refined as part of the proposed new EU Data Protection Regulation. “A well-executed reform, with a better written and more appropriate version of the right to be forgotten is the ultimate solution here,” Bernal said. “If that can be brought in soon – rather than delayed or undermined – then we can all move on from the Google Spain ruling, both legally and practically. I think everyone might benefit from that.”
Simon Hughes, the UK’s justice minister said that while the British government wants to maintain people’s right to privacy, it must also protect freedom of speech. He said people should not assume that they have an “unfettered” right to remove material about themselves from search engines just because it is inconvenient and that in many cases there is a public interest in keeping information alive. Google, which delivers more than 90 per cent of European online searches, claims to have hundreds of staff, including paralegals, working on assessing requests to delete information. “This is a new and evolving process for us,” a spokesman said.
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