When European privacy law goes into effect in May, the internet giant Google won’t be scrambling to plug holes in its “controlling systems.”
In the wake of the March 23 European Court of Justice ruling, known as the “right to be forgotten,” or RTO, Google could no longer link to anything online that people didn’t give permission to be indexed. The result would be that people who want their names and data scrubbed from the web would have to make their requests directly to Google — or to entities like Wikipedia that host relevant pages.
Under current law, web companies must respond to requests for the deletion of certain data with an explanation of the circumstances that led to it being made available in the first place. If they fail to respond, the law makes it clear they must remove the information from search results.
The March ruling presents a problem for the internet and news companies. However, European newspaper groups claim that Google misled the public about the success it had in dealing with the new privacy rules. That, in turn, could make it difficult for people to understand Google’s remedies, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in California federal court.
A lawyer for the newspaper organizations that filed the lawsuit said in a press conference on Tuesday that Google told the public that “slowing down” the new system wouldn’t actually have any effect on users, while secretly working to ensure that the site complied with the ruling.
After the ruling, Google published a blog post in which the company said that “if people make a request, we still prioritize our users’ privacy over any financial or business interest we may have in that data,” and that it “will have the resources to make sure that any withheld search results are quickly removed.”
“For example,” the post said, “if a user requests that links to a particular article be removed from Google search results, Google may decide to prioritize the request over all other requests, including for the same information.”
But the newspaper groups that filed the suit say that Google has instead simply tried to interpret the law, which they say is vague, and that it actually gives Google “great discretion to evade its stated obligation to remove” links from search results that have been blocked by requests.
The plaintiffs said they obtained an “exhaustive study” of 50,000 Google search results that have appeared after RTO went into effect. “More than 60 percent of those search results make reference to certain facts that have been withheld pursuant to the RTO in this manner,” according to the lawsuit.
European officials have taken issue with what they see as a lack of transparency in Google’s policies when it comes to the RTO.
“Companies such as Google do not offer transparency, not transparency in the sense that people, by going to the Google web site, have a right to inspect or make inquiries about the search results,” said Sandro Gozi, the Italian politician who headed an expert panel that advised the European Commission on the new privacy rules. “They can search these results and see, to see, that a link has been removed, because Google knows, where did it come from.”
People can submit requests for the removal of specific searches to Google, but the RTO gives individuals control over which search results should be removed, according to the court opinion.
The paper groups suing Google accuse the company of adding extra “transparency requirements, without transparency.”
A Google spokesman said the company had not been served with the suit and could not comment on it.
“Google has a longstanding commitment to transparency, which is why we provide users with the ability to make requests to us for the removal of search results,” the spokesman said. “In many cases, we review them to determine whether a link is legitimate, and if so, we take steps to remove it from our search results.”