MPs call for Google to block privacy-breaching results

Search engines should filter out private information protected by a court injunction so that UK viewers cannot see it, a parliamentary committee has urged, adding that Twitter and Facebook should be pursued too

Google should censor its search results to block content covered by privacy injunctions, MPs and peers have said.

Houses of Parliament London

Search engines should filter out private information protected by a court injunction so that UK viewers cannot see it, a parliamentary committee has urged.

If the company does not move to comply with such court orders, the government should bring in a law to force search engines to filter results for restricted material, the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions said in a report on Tuesday.

"Google and other search engines should take steps to ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law, and should actively develop and use such technology," the parliamentary committee said in its report. "We recommend that if legislation is necessary to require them to do so, it should be introduced."

However, the committee does not want search companies to block affected content from all viewers across the world, its chair John Whittingdale MP told ZDNet UK; it is asking for it to be prevented from reaching readers in Britain. This means search engines should filter results according to the location of users, he said.

"Probably we need to be looking to [Google] to restrict for people searching from the UK, if the court order applies to the UK," Whittingdale said. "It's not so much 'censoring' web content... If [content subject to injunction] is so easily revealed by a quick search on Google, it makes the law look ridiculous."

The parliamentary committee heard evidence from Facebook, Twitter and Google, as well as celebrities Hugh Grant and Max Mosley, before making its report. Its recommendations are advisory, and the government is under no obligation to follow them.

Web freedoms

Google, which stopped self-censoring on behalf of the Chinese government in 2010, responded by saying the recommendations could have an impact on web freedoms.

"Requiring search engines to screen the content of their web pages would be like asking phone companies to listen in on every call made across their networks for potentially suspicious activity," the company said in a statement.

"Google already removes specific pages deemed unlawful by the courts. We have a number of simple tools anyone can use to report such content, which we then remove from our index," it added.

In its evidence, Google told the committee that it it does not have technology in place to monitor duplicate images or text. Moreover, an algorithm does not have the ability to judge individual context when censoring content, it noted.

There is "an obvious risk in urging the use of automated search algorithms to try to remove offending content", the company told MPs and peers. "In reality, due to the sheer volume of communications and the limitations of automated systems, this would undoubtedly result in the removal of legitimate websites from search results."

However, Whittingdale believes Google could build tools to accommodate legitimate sites caught by an inappropriate automatic takedown. "Google could very easily put in an appeals mechanism," he told ZDNet UK.

Takedown procedures

The current notice and takedown procedures used by search engines are inadequate to enforce UK privacy injunctions, according to the report. Injunctions are often used by powerful organisations and famous individuals to stop the publication of certain pieces of information. The committee gave the example of Mosley, a Formula One racing impresario, who won a privacy case against the News of the World after it published details of his personal life.

Mosley told the committee he had difficulties with Google's takedown procedures after pictures appeared in internet searches. The impresario failed to win an injunction to prevent a video from circulating on the internet after the judge decided it was too widely available for an order to be of any use.

Every time an obscure, tiny site in the Andes puts it up, you have to put your lawyers into action to take it down.

– Max Mosley

"Every time an obscure, tiny site in the Andes puts it up, you have to put your lawyers into action to take it down," he said in evidence. "We had a very high-level meeting with Google in which I said, 'Here are the pictures. We know which ones they are. Simply programme your search engine so they don't appear.' That is demonstrably technically feasible."

The committee said it was unconvinced by Google's arguments against web filtering, and said search engines should make an effort to uphold UK law.

"Google acknowledged that it was possible to develop the technology proactively to monitor websites for such material in order that the material does not appear in the results of searches," the committee said in its report. "We find their objections in principle to developing such technology totally unconvincing."

Whittingdale pointed out that Google is currently holding "intense conversations" with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport over whether it should block pirated materials in search.

Privacy injunction

The committee also wants people who get a privacy injunction to try to force global social networks to block contravening posts from UK viewers.

"We recommend that, when granting an injunction, courts should be proactive in directing the claimant to serve notice on internet content platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook," it said in its report.

However, Whittingdale conceded it would be difficult for Twitter and Facebook to monitor all of the content flowing over their systems.

"Twitter and Facebook are more complicated [than Google]," said Whittingdale. "Individuals post unmoderated messages. It's more a question of holding to account people who are divulging information. It's going to be difficult for Twitter and Facebook to monitor all posts just to see if someone has broken an injunction."

In 2011, a Twitter member named '@injunctionsuper' published details of celebrities who he alleged had taken out super-injunctions to hide details of their private lives: a super-injunction prevents anyone reporting that an injunction has been granted. Twitter was subsequently sued by an unnamed celebrity.

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