'Difficult judgments' on web laws
Internet search engine Google has denied it is being deliberately over-zealous in implementing a European Court of Justice ruling granting ordinary people the "right to be forgotten" online.
A court ruling in May required search engines in Europe to remove links to information relating to ordinary individuals who complain that it is outdated or irrelevant.
Google says it has since received more than 70,000 requests relating to a quarter of a million websites, and admits that a "backlog" of cases has built up.
Journalists have since reported articles and blog posts being removed after the subjects complained, prompting accusations of press censorship. BBC economics editor Robert Peston highlighted a letter he had received from Google about a 2007 blog post he wrote about investment bank Merrill Lynch and its former boss Stan O'Neal, which would no longer be shown "in response to certain searches on European versions of Google".
Google's head of communications for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Peter Barron, revealed that that page was not hidden in response to a complaint from the bank or Mr O'Neal, but a request from a member of the public who posted a response to the blog and no longer wanted it to be available to people searching his name.
Mr Barron acknowledged that Mr Peston's article was "very much in the public interest", but told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It relates to an ordinary member of the public who left a comment on Robert's blog - maybe something embarrassing - and he contacted Google and asked to have that page removed.
"If you search for Merrill Lynch it will appear. If you search for Stan O'Neal it will appear. Only if you search for the very narrow term of the name of the individual commenter would it not appear."
Mr Barron added: "We have to balance the need for transparency with the need to protect people's identity as well. In all cases where we remove content, we let the webmaster of the site know that we've removed content."
Mr Peston said it was "a bit weird" that his article could be blocked because an individual regretted a comment he had voluntarily posted years ago.
"People voluntarily put things up," said the BBC correspondent. "Nobody coerces them to leave comments on my blog. I just think it's slightly odd that there should now be a law in place that basically says if you feel a bit embarrassed about what you said, you can hide yourself.
"I'm not saying it's Google's problem, but it does seem to me to be something a bit weird about a world in which you can allow people to cause enormous bureaucratic difficulties for all the search engine companies and lots of uncertainty about what can be found and can't be found, just because they feel a bit embarrassed about what they said a few years earlier.
"This does seem a sort of feather-bedding of people that some might think is a bit over the top."
Mr Barron confirmed that Google was not happy with the ECJ ruling, but said that the company was "absolutely not" being deliberately over-zealous in implementing it.
"The European Court of Justice ruling was not something that we welcomed or wanted, but it is now the law in Europe and we are obliged to comply with that law," said Mr Barron.
"We are aiming to deal with it as responsibly as possible. We've had more than 70,000 requests so far. That's a huge task. In most cases we've had about four webpages per request, so that's something like 250,000 requests to remove content.
"It's a very big process. It's a learning process for us. We are listening to the feedback and we are working our way through that.
"These are difficult judgments. We have to balance a whole range of things - free expression, privacy and the public's right to know.
"This is new territory for us all. We opposed the ruling. There's no right of appeal in the ECJ but we think it's important to have a public debate about this. This is a very, very important issue for the future of privacy, free expression and journalism. We've assembled a committee of experts - people involved in those fields - to help us wrestle with some of those issues for the future.
"We are learning as we go. I'm sure we will get better at it and we are very keen to listen to the feedback."
T ech-savvy internet users have found that they are able to keep hold of links to their archive by using the US domain Google.com, rather than the .co.uk domain bound by the European rules.
Proponents of the court decision say it gives individuals the possibility to restore their reputation by deleting references to old debts, past arrests and other unflattering episodes. They also note that the court specified Google should not remove links to information when the public's right to know about it outweighs an individual's right to privacy - for example when a politician or public figure seeks to clean online records.
The purge of search results will apply to Google's local search pages covering the EU's 28 member nations and four other European countries, encompassing more than 500 million people. Users in Europe who switch to the firm's American domain, Google.com, will find unaltered search results.
Google is only deleting information that appears on its own results pages. It has no control over information on external websites, which did not fall under the court's ruling.
The internet giant said it is currently receiving about 1,000 requests for the removal of information per day.