Google to face-off with data watchdogs over 'right to be forgotten' stance

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are meeting data protection officials in Brussels to discuss how best to handle right to be forgotten requests.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo will meet European data protection officials today to discuss implementing the recent 'right to be forgotten' ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

National data regulators that are part of the European Union's Article 29 Data Protection Working Party will be meeting with the three companies in Brussels and plan to raise concerns over how Google has tackled the issue so far. 

The meeting, chaired by the French data watchdog CNIL, follows an ECJ ruling in April stipulating that European citizens have the right to ask search engines to stop returning links to information about them that is outdated, irrelevant, or excessive, when searches are performed on their names. Only searches in the European Union are affected, and all original source material will remain online and accessible.

Google began taking requests for de-linking under the ruling in May, and is thought to have received 70,000 requests since then. Last month it removed the first batch of links from search results, and then subsequently restored a number of them.

The move generated much debate, and had the effect that many of the stories that were supposed to be forgotten received more public attention than previously.

This phenomenon, known as the Streisand effect, has drawn criticism from watchdogs. "The more they do so, it means the media organisation republishes the information and so much for the right to be forgotten. There is an issue there," Billy Hawkes, the Irish data protection commissioner, told Bloomberg.

The UK's top data protection official has also said Google must do more to make sure the links it provides are pertinent.

"The polluter pays, the polluter should clear up," Christopher Graham, the UK information commissioner, told the BBC. "Google is a massive commercial organisation making millions, millions and millions out of processing people's personal information. They're going to have to do some tidying up.

"They won't do all the tidying up that some people might like, because if you embarrass yourself, there's not much you can do about it… all this talk about rewriting history and airbrushing embarrassing bits from your past, that's not going to happen." 

Compared to Google, Microsoft took a lower-profile approach on the matter, opening its own right to be forgotten request form earlier this month.

While Microsoft has not publicly given its opinion on the 'right to be forgotten' ruling, Google has repeatedly denounced the ECJ decision. Google chairman Eric Schmidt called the case "a collision between the right to be forgotten and the right to know".

He said: "From Google's perspective that's a balance... You have to find a balance. Google believes, having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong."

European officials have not yet published the official guidelines on how companies should address people's requests, and it's thought the meeting will allow the companies to put forward their opinions on the subject.

"The data protection authorities have invited search engines to discuss with them, on July 24th, the practical implementation of the key principles in this [ECJ] case in order to finalise the [Article 29 Working Party's] guidelines foreseen for autumn 2014," CNIL said.

Microsoft declined to comment on the matter, while Google and Yahoo did not respond to a request for comment.

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