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Google reinstates some ‘right to be forgotten’ links

LONDON — Google’s efforts to carry out a European court order on the “right to be forgotten” took another twist Friday as the company restored search-engine links to several newspaper articles from The Guardian whose delinking had stirred a public furor only a day earlier.

As Google once again declined to explain its decision-making, the episode underscored the potentially bewildering complexities of trying to remove information from the Internet when people request it.

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Analysts and public officials, many critical of the way that Google is carrying out the court order, say the tumult could have far wider implications. That is because the order, issued in May by the European Court of Justice, dealt with a right to be forgotten that would be much more broadly interpreted in a sweeping digital privacy law that is now the subject of discussions involving the European Parliament, the European Commission and leaders of the 28 member countries of the European Union.

With a new parliament still assembling after recent European elections — and a new European Commission taking over this year — the legislation’s prospects are difficult to handicap. The one certainty, political analysts say, is that the Google controversy will galvanize lobbyists whether they support or oppose the legislation.

The recent court decision relates solely relate to search services like Google and Bing, which is run by Microsoft. But the European privacy legislation would affect any company or website that holds European customers’ digital information. The turmoil surrounding Google’s response to the European court decision could be multiplied and magnified when companies other than search engines — including social media providers and e-commerce sites — are compelled to respond to people’s requests that their digital data be expunged.

“The scope of the new regulation will be much wider,” said Peter Church, an associate at the law firm Linklaters in London.

The court’s ruling “only applies to people’s names in search results,” he said, adding, “The new rules apply to more than just search engines.”

It is possible, of course, that if the legislation becomes law, it would provide clarity to a process that Google seems, whether by choice or default, to be improvising as it goes along.

In Friday’s turnabout, the company told The Guardian that several links to its articles had been reinstated in Google’s European search service after the newspaper complained. Some of the articles were from 2010 about a soccer referee, now retired, who had been accused of lying about why he had awarded a penalty kick in a match in Scotland.

Google declined to explain why it had removed the links this week, or its reasons for honoring The Guardian’s request to restore them.

Critics said the episode highlighted a lack of transparency about how Google is carrying out the court order as it works through requests it has received for removing information, a number that has reached 70,000 and continues to grow.

Raegan MacDonald, the European policy manager in Brussels for the digital rights advocacy group Access, said Friday that it should not be Google’s role to decide what information is relevant.

“That’s not favorable,” she said. “It’s not up to a company to make that decision.”

Peter Barron, Google’s director of communications for Europe, told a British radio program Friday that the company was going through a “learning process” about how to carry out the court’s judgment.

“We have to balance the need for transparency with the need to protect people’s identities,” Barron said.

The deleted links also included those to a BBC article from 2007 about E. Stanley O’Neal, the former chief of the investment bank Merrill Lynch, and his role in the losses the company sustained during the financial crisis. It was unclear Friday whether those links had been reinstated, or whether the BBC had requested they be restored.

A representative for the BBC was not immediately available for comment Friday, while a spokesman for Google said it was trying to comply with the recent court ruling but declined to comment about the BBC article.

Lawmakers in Brussels are working to complete the digital privacy legislation by next year, in hopes of phasing it in from 2017. The law would be aimed at giving Europeans greater control over how their online information is used. Any company with operations in the European Union could face multimillion-euro fines if they abused people’s data.

By expanding Europeans’ right to be forgotten, the new legislation could require companies like Amazon, Facebook and other websites that have access to personal data to remove online information if the data is no longer relevant or if people ask for the data to be erased.

Current drafts of the legislation, though, would provide certain exemptions for news outlets and research organizations, so that information deemed to be in the public interest would remain online.

To decide what should, and should not, be removed, national courts would be expected to determine whether people have the right to ask for the information to be removed, or whether it should remain online.

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“There’s a large challenge ahead,” Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German politician and leading supporter of the new privacy rules, said Friday.

The rules are not intended to curtail people’s freedom of speech, he said. But he added: “If someone complains, the courts must decide. They must weigh the interests of the individual against those of the public.”

That would be a more formal process than is now used in Google’s ad hoc delinking.

Under the European court’s decision, people must first make requests to Google and to other search engines for links to be removed. Only if they are not satisfied with the response can individuals ask their national data privacy regulators to intervene to make a final decision.

But the ruling related solely to allowing people to request that their names not show up in search results when the information is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” It did not provide guidance on how affected websites like those of The Guardian and the BBC could press search engines to reconsider an initial decision to remove links to specific articles. It is now the responsibility of Google, not the regulators, to decide whether links should be reinstated.

“The court’s ruling is not supposed to deal with all these complications,” said Chris Forsyth, a technology lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London.

He said the court decision had purposefully not given much guidance on how to deal with Europeans’ right for greater privacy. Referring to the data privacy legislation, Forsyth added, “That’s the aim of the new regulation.”

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