In May, a European court told Google it must assist people in cleaning up their online reputations by ruling that there is a "right to be forgotten."
Google’s efforts to comply with that decision moved a step forward this week, as several British news organizations, including the BBC and The Guardian, announced that they had been notified that certain articles would no longer appear in search results because a complaint had been filed.
By Thursday, a frenzy had erupted over perceived censorship and compromising media freedom, while European regulators and the news outlets themselves complained that Google’s compliance with the European court ruling employed too broad a brush.
That deletions from Google’s search results could cause such a stir — after all, the articles continue to appear on the websites that published them and can still be easily found if a searcher sidesteps the European versions of Google and uses the U.S. version, Google.com — speaks to the vast influence of this particular search engine. By some estimates, Google has about an 85 percent share of search traffic in Europe. In North America, that figure stands at less than 70 percent.
Whether purely coincidental or not — Google was not saying — the uproar Thursday, involving some of the most popular European news sites, amounted to a publicity campaign highlighting the problems Google had warned the "right to be forgotten" order would cause.
"What I am seeing is a reverse PR game Google is playing — create a storm," said Rishi Lakhani, an online marketing consultant in Britain. "And that is what is happening now. The media is saying, ‘Is this right?’"
About 70,000 requests for expunging information were submitted to Google from May 29 to June 30, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The deleted links included those to a BBC blog post by Robert Peston, the organization’s economics editor, in 2007 about E. Stanley O’Neal, the former chief of investment bank Merrill Lynch, which was ultimately sold during the financial crisis. The Guardian also said that links to six articles had been removed in Europe, including three articles from 2010 regarding a soccer referee, now retired, who had been accused of lying about why he had awarded a penalty kick in a match in Scotland.
A representative for Google declined to comment. The New York Times has yet to receive any notifications from Google related to its articles.
Analysts noted that even with the controversy over Google’s moves, there were obvious limits to expunging information from the Internet.
"The court’s decision may have been right, but the implementation of the ruling will be a nightmare," said Patrick Van Eecke, a data protection lawyer at DLA Piper in Brussels. "People can still find the information online. It’s just a question about how you find it."
Google began removing links to content last week. And as it proceeds, it is reminding European users on almost every search that results could have been altered. A notice at the bottom of many search pages indicates "some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe."
The statement does not say which results have been changed. But analysts said that the reminder — and the company’s fast-paced efforts to comply with the court ruling — was meant to show European users that the potential difficulties should be laid at the door of policymakers and not the company.
"Google has been very shrewd," said Chris Forsyth, a technology lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London. "By just going about trying to comply with the ruling, it has made them look respectful about people’s online privacy."
Privacy advocates, however, have a different take.
"There are a lot of ways that this ruling can be spun to undermine data protection," said Raegan MacDonald, European policy manager for digital rights group Access in Brussels.
European lawmakers are debating new data-privacy rules, which are meant to give people greater control over how companies use their online information. The rules are expected to be completed next year.
Digital rights groups said the difficulties in complying with the European court’s ruling might help Google and other companies continue their lobbying efforts aimed at watering down the legislation.
But the efforts to remove links have not necessarily led to greater online privacy.
As with the links that drew publicity Thursday, the posts also still exist on the originating websites, even if they cannot be found through a search of the person’s name on Google.co.uk and on Google’s other European search domains. All the information is still available on Google’s search portals outside the European Union, including in the United States.
It is unclear whether the individuals specifically mentioned in the articles asked for links to the information to be removed or whether others had submitted requests to Google.
Yet because the European court ruling says that individuals with a public profile do not have the right to insist that links to information about themselves be taken down, analysts said, it was unlikely that O’Neal had made the request. Instead, an individual in the comment section, who had discussed his role in Merrill Lynch’s demise, could have made the requests.
Representatives from the BBC and The Guardian said they were still reviewing how to respond to Google’s removals of links.
"We are always concerned about any attempts to block access to our content," a Guardian spokeswoman said in a statement Thursday. "If the purpose of the judgment is not to enable censorship of publishers by the back door, then we’d encourage Google to be transparent about the criteria it is using to make these decisions."