In Europe, Google Stumbles Between Free Speech And Privacy : All Tech Considered Europe's highest court left Google with the responsibility of balancing the privacy rights of citizens with the public interest — and it's a tough balancing act.

In Europe, Google Stumbles Between Free Speech And Privacy

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In our All Tech Considered segment today, pulling information off of the information superhighway. Europe's highest court wrote a few weeks back that people have what's been called the right to be forgotten. That is if the European doesn't like what pops up about him or her in web search, they can try to get the link to that information removed. That means Google is now receiving thousands of requests to hide search results. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports on how Google is responding.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Google could have dragged its feet or waited for privacy regulators in the European Union to give more direction. Instead, the search giant moved quickly and put together an easy-to-use form.

RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ LOPEZ: Yeah, I'm on it right now.

SHAHANI: Rafael Rodriguez Lopez is a journalist in Vigo, Spain, and he's sitting in front of his laptop.

LOPEZ: It says in Spanish how to remove content from Google.

SHAHANI: He's volunteered to fill out this form asking Google to hide a search result about him. One that shows he shared a dumb article on racy ways to get rid of the common cold.

LOPEZ: I think anyone could see that I shared the kind of article.

SHAHANI: It takes him just a few minutes to check the right boxes and explain his rationale. He also has to upload a picture ID, say from school or a driver's license with the serial numbers blacked out, to prove he is the Rafael Rodriguez Lopez in question.

LOPEZ: OK, I think that's it.

SHAHANI: And he's impressed. Typically, the official processes take a lot of paperwork and visits to bureaucracies.

LOPEZ: This is relatively easy and quick for the Spanish standard I have to say.

SHAHANI: The form may be simple but the underlying law is not. Privacy and freedom of speech are both written into the European Union Charter. Under the court ruling, search engines have to balance these bedrock rights. Google feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. In a statement released on Friday, the company says it's received over 70,000 applications. It is putting every single one through human review and the court order is very vague and subjective. Internet law expert Nico van Eijk at the University of Amsterdam points to a key legal difference between Europe and the U.S.

NICO VAN EIJK: The European concept of privacy doesn't include harm as a necessary circumstance. Everyone can claim his own privacy rights independent from whether there is a direct harm involved or whether it's a slander case.

SHAHANI: Some very tough cases are coming up. One Dutch newspaper reports a woman who survived a serious illness wants to hide an article that describes her ordeal, potential employers could discriminate against her. Even if the story is accurate, van Eijk says, Google has to concede if the link is inadequate or irrelevant or excessive.

EIJK: It leaves only a very small margin for journalists and media claiming the possibility to report on individual persons because it's of public interest.

SHAHANI: European media has criticized Google for playing with those margins.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you being deliberately overzealous in applying it?

PETER BARRON: Absolutely not.

SHAHANI: That's Google spokesman Peter Barron in a BBC interview. Google told a BBC reporter that his article on a big bank wouldn't appear in some search results. The reporter was outraged - suddenly a politician or banker that's the subject of investigative reporting could game the system. Only later did Google clarify the article wouldn't appear only when you searched for the name of one specific person who left a comment.


BARRON: We have to balance the need for transparency with the need to protect peoples' identity as well.

SHAHANI: Privacy advocate Joe McNamee in Brussels says Google is either going overboard with the privacy ruling...


JOE MCNAMEE: Or they are accidentally or deliberately giving the impression to the media that the ruling is far broader than it actually is.

SHAHANI: Google says it disagrees with the court ruling and the company's interpretation is very much a work in progress. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.

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