Google starts censoring search results in Europe due to privacy ruling

Google(s goog) has begun removing some results from name search results in Europe in order to comply with laws that let people request links about themselves to be removed.

A result for a name search (OK, I Googled myself) on Thursday morning brought up this note at the bottom of the page:

Google censoring results

“Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe,” the note reads, linking to an FAQ page. By the way, no I haven’t asked for something about myself to be de-linked. Someone else with my fairly common name may have done so, but this is really just a generic disclaimer.

As the FAQ page notes:

We’re showing this notice in Europe when a user searches for most names, not just pages that have been affected by a removal.

All this stems from a ruling by Europe’s top court in May, which stated that Google must abide by existing EU law regarding the deletion of people’s personal data. The company must remove links to a person’s data (the case involved old articles referring to someone’s financial troubles) if that data is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed,” and if the person the data is about asks for it to be obscured.

Google set up a web form at the end of May so people could easily submit their requests for link removal. However, it didn’t actually start taking things down, saying at the time that it was “working to finalize [its] implementation of removal requests under European data protection law as soon as possible.” It said it would work with advisors (such as Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales) and data protection authorities to refine its approach over the coming months, and it repeats this line in the new FAQ.

Google issued a statement on Thursday reading:

“This week, we’re starting to take action on the removals requests that we’ve received. This is a new process for us. Each request has to be assessed individually and we’re working as quickly as possible to get through the queue. We’ll continue to work with data protection authorities and others as we implement this ruling.”

In its statement, Google said it began removing links on Wednesday. It said it was beginning cautiously and would step up the process when the systems are shown to be working. Why is it starting so soon? It wants to show good faith.

As soon as the ruling happened, Google started receiving requests from pedophiles and disgraced politicians asking for links to articles about them to be removed. That’s wishful thinking – the ruling clearly states that links relating to information in the public interest can stay up – but it does highlight the issue of who decides what stays up and what comes down.

It’s actually ultimately up to the courts and data protection officials, not Google, to decide what gets removed. As the Court of Justice of the European Union said (PDF) at the time of its ruling:

“The data subject may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine (the controller) which must then duly examine its merits. Where the controller does not grant the request, the data subject may bring the matter before the supervisory authority or the judicial authority so that it carries out the necessary checks and orders the controller to take specific measures accordingly.”

I asked Google to explain how it decides when something comes down or not, and to say how many links it’s removed thus far, but the company refused to comment further.

This article was updated at 4am PT to include Google’s statement, which clearly says it is now censoring results.