Google is accepting requests from Europeans who want to purge unflattering information that pops up about them in Web links retrieved by the world’s dominant search engine.
The demands can be submitted on a Web page that Google opened late yesterday in response to a landmark ruling issued two weeks ago by Europe’s highest court.
The decision gives Europeans the means to polish their online reputations by petitioning Google and other search engines to remove potentially damaging links to newspaper articles and other websites with embarrassing information about their past activities.
Google’s compliance thrusts the company into the prickly position of having to balance privacy concerns and “the right to be forgotten” against the principles of free expression and “the right to know”.
The form is available to Europeans from the support section of the Google legal site. Users then list the URL addresses they would like to see removed from searches linked to them.
The form asks for personal information as well as proof of ID in order to prevent any fraudulent requests being submitted.
A Google spokesman said: “To comply with the recent European court ruling, we’ve made a webform available for Europeans to request the removal of results from our search engine.
“The court’s ruling requires Google to make difficult judgments about an individual’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to know.
“We’re creating an expert advisory committee to take a thorough look at these issues. We’ll also be working with data protection authorities and others as we implement this ruling.”
Google also confirmed that requests would be rejected if information was felt to be “in the public interest”.
The new advisory committee has been set up as Google acknowledges this is a new process, and the company said it is keen to seek opinion from across different industries in understanding the new process.
Co-founder Larry Page told the Financial Times: “I think it’s a question of the broad things you might value; there’s no way to get it perfect. There’s always going to be some harm. You can’t have perfect rights for everything.”
The company, which earlier this week unveiled a self-driving car, said it will now convene the committee to look at the issues surrounding the court ruling, with confirmed members including Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and Luciano Floridi, a professor of ethics and philosophy at Oxford University.
Google said it will seek input from other industries, including journalism and law, as part of the committee’s work.
Mr Wales is known to have strong views on the ruling, calling it “astonishing” shortly after it was announced, and said it was “one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen”.
He later tweeted: “When will a European Court demand that Wikipedia censor an article with truthful information because an individual doesn’t like it?”
On joining the committee, Prof Floridi said: “I’m delighted to join the international advisory committee established by Google to evaluate the ethical and legal challenges posed by the internet. It is an exciting initiative, which will probably require some hard and rather philosophical thinking.”
Web privacy is becoming a growing issue in the wake of surveillance stories and the increased presence of technology within our daily lives – gathering personal data about us.
Earlier this year, the creator of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, said that governments and internet companies needed to work together to create a “bill of rights” for all internet users to protect them online.
In the two weeks since the ruling by the European Court of Justice, Google said it has received “a few thousand” requests for data to be removed from searches. In the UK, a former politician seeking re-election and a convicted paedophile both made requests to Google to have links to news stories about them removed.
Google has 500 million users in Europe, and the company has come under scrutiny, alongside social networks like Facebook, for using the wealth of information they have on users to drive advertising. However, Mr Page said it felt that it was better than having government in control of such large amounts of data.
“In general, having the data present in companies like Google is better than having it in the government with no due process to get that data, because we obviously care about our reputation. I’m not sure the government cares about that as much. We have a worldwide reputation we’re trying to protect,” he said.
Trust in US-based internet companies has been damaged in the wake of Edward Snowden files detailing widespread US surveillance of web users, but Mr Page said he believes the attention this has attracted in Europe is a good thing.
“Europe’s probably paying more attention than the US. We do have imperfect political and legal systems. It’s great that people are concerned about this in Europe because we need that kind of vigilance.”
Google confirmed that the request form is now live, and that it will work with the relevant data protection authority to process each request to reach a decision on each case.