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Google CEO warns ‘right to be forgotten’ could stifle innovation and empower repressive regimes

Larry Page, Google's co-founder and chief executive, speaks during the keynote presentation at Google I/O 2013 in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and chief executive. (Jeff Chiu/ AP)

After agreeing to comply with a recent ruling that Internet users in the European Union have a “right to be forgotten,” Google’s chief executive Larry Page made some ominous predictions about the impact of the decision.

The ruling could damage the next generation of Internet start-ups and strengthen the hand of repressive governments inclined to restrict online communication, Page said in an interview with the Financial Times.

The decision by the European Court of Justice requires the search engine purge outdated or irrelevant personal information from search results upon user request, even if the information is legally available elsewhere.

Such removal requests must be balanced against the best interest of the public, according to the court. Information that is of scientific of historic value or related to public figures is subject to exception.

That means, for example, someone could ask for links to court records related to old debts since paid be removed from search results. That was the situation before the Luxembourg-based court when it made its decision earlier this month.

If Google is inundated by take-down requests, how will the company manage them? If Google removes a link to a video, do they have to remove it again if the video is re-published on another site? How far does Google have to go to comply with the ruling? The ruling will be implemented by European Union member states, which means interpretation and enforcement may vary.

To sort out the practical implications of the ruling, Google plans to set up a committee, largely composed of outside experts, to hold hearings in Europe and advise it on how to deal with its new privacy responsibilities. The Times reported Google is expected to announce plans on Friday.

“We’re a big company and we can respond to these kind of concerns and spend money on them and deal with them, it’s not a problem for us,” Page said. But, he added, this could have hurt Google when it was still “three people in a garage.”

Page argues the new privacy regime will make it hard for Internet start-ups, which face regulatory complexity. “As we regulate the internet, I think we’re not going to see the kind of innovation we’ve seen,” he told the Times.

Page also told the Times the ruling would encourage repressive regimes around the world to increase online censorship: “It will be used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things. Other people are going to pile on, probably … for reasons most Europeans would find negative.”

Some are also concerned about freedom of speech in Europe. “This ruling opens the door to large scale private censorship in Europe,” James Waterworth of the CCIA, a tech company lobby group in Brussels, told the Times.

The decision lets Google determine the public’s best interest. That’s a moral dilemma for Google, whose decisions will affect how much Internet users know about the potentially unsavory past of people they hire, marry or move in with. Google might not think someone’s 10-year-old sex tape posted to a porn site is relevant, but that person’s fiancée might disagree.

It’s also a moral dilemma for the public, which may question whether a large corporation can be trusted to make such decisions.

Freedom of information advocates may be concerned that Internet users in one country have access to information that’s unavailable in another. As the Wall Street Journal noted, it’s unclear from the ruling whether Google will have to remove links in the complaining user’s country only, or everywhere.

Page told the Times he was caught off guard by the EU ruling and promised a new level of engagement in Europe over privacy issues. “I wish we’d been more involved in a real debate … in Europe,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’ve taken from this, that we’re starting the process of really going and talking to people.”

“We’re trying now to be more European and think about it maybe more from a European context,” Page said. “A very significant amount of time is going to be spent in Europe talking.”

On Friday Google posted a removal request form online. It requires users to submit their names and email addresses, links to the information in question and an explanation of why it should be removed.

“When evaluating your request, we will look at whether the results include outdated information about you, as well as whether there’s a public interest in the information—for example, information about financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials,” the form says.

A scanned copy of a photo ID is also required because “Google often receives fraudulent removal requests from people impersonating others, trying to harm competitors, or improperly seeking to suppress legal information” the company explains. “To prevent this kind of abuse, we need to verify identity.”

Google notes that it will be “working with data protection authorities” to improve the form which it described as an “initial effort.” It did not say how long it will take to process requests.

Related Content:

STORY: Does a British pedophile deserve the ‘right to be forgotten’ by Google?

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.



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