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What's your game, Google? Giant collared by UK civil lib minister on 'right to be forgotten'

'Mr Peston appeared to be on the top of Google's pile'

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Lib Dem civil liberties minister Simon Hughes told Westminster today the British public had got the misleadingly named "Right to be Forgotten" ruling badly wrong – and queried why a report from the BBC's Robert Peston was "top of the pile" when Google began deleting entries from its search results.

Google has since restored the "deletions" it made last week.

Hughes urged Google to remind the public they had no "right" to get data removed just because they asked, and wanted Google to remind people of this. He also said he wanted Google to publish how many delink requests it turned down, in the hope people realised most would be unsuccessful.

However, Hughes said he would put the UK's weight behind moves to draft more Google-friendly legislation currently under discussion in Europe.

Hughes was speaking at the House of Lords' Home Affairs, Health and Education sub-committee session today about the consequences of the European Court of Justice's ruling that Google is not exempt from European data protection legislation.

Thanks to misleading initial reporting - for example by Channel 4 News and the BBC - this had led people to ask for information to be deleted from Google's search results for specific queries simply because they found it a bit embarrassing.

But this was flat out wrong, he told the committee.

"There is no Right given by the Justices for people to have their personal data deleted from search engine results - there is no new right. It was a very focused judgment and the phraseology is actually inaccurate, and gives it an unhelpful gloss," explained Hughes.

What many of the delinking applicants didn't realise, he said, was that the public interest, the right to know, had to be weighed up in any decision, either by Google at the first stage, or ultimately by the Information Tribunal.

"There's a right to request the information is removed - but this is not a right to have the request complied with… there is no 'Right to be Forgotten," said Hughes.

"This doesn't mean people who want a criminal conviction to be deleted are going to be successful; that's clearly unacceptable. And it's not just criminal records - somebody standing for public office who had done something in the past that might be thought to render them inappropriate for public office - there would be a public interest in the public knowing that, if it was factually correct.

"We need to get out the message out that this isn't what people think it should be."

The select committee MPs quizzing Hughes appeared to be as confused as anyone. This was particularly the case since the government (and the UK's information commissioner) support the CJEU ruling but oppose ex-Commissioner Viviane Reding's sweeping "Right To Be Forgotten", a measure that would attempt to see information obliterated from the internet.

Hughes said Reding's vision was not just impractical, but impossible, given the global nature of the internet.

"We think the 'Right To Be Forgotten' is wrong," said Hughes.

However the CJEU's narrow ruling was quite different, he said. It balanced the right to know and meant privacy "is not just the right of the rich and their expensive libel lawyers".

One peer, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, even cited figures for copyright takedown requests culled from Google's Transparency Report - a very large number indeed. (Don't worry. Faulkner also sits on three other Select Committees).

"This is clearly unworkable, isn't it?" he asked.

Breaking the internet

Google wants people to think European judges made a far-reaching decision that "broke the internet". But last week, the UK's Information Commissioner Steve Wood answered the Committee's questions [transcript] and said something similar to Hughes: that the "crisis" was synthetic, and he expected the number of requests to peak as people actually twigged what it was about.

"They have to be geared up to deal with those volumes, but we expect that the volumes will reach a peak as the awareness reaches a high level among members of the public. Over time it will become more routine."

"There will be some work to do to dispel the myths," said Wood.

So what should Google do? Hughes said it should be clearer about what the ruling entitled the citizen to ask for.

"Google should make it clear how many people they are turning down, as well as how many succeed. If people get the impression they are all succeeding, that will encourages others to think they might succeed.

"My plea to Google would be … to share the robust message that something about somebody's record cannot disappear because somebody requests it. The louder they say this, the better."

Hughes reminded peers that if Google declined a de-linking request, it was up to the citizen to appeal. The ICO could then decline it. Only then would a judicial procedure begin.

"I would hope and expect the majority would not be successful."

Hughes also wondered aloud why Google had de-linked to a BBC blog post by Robert Peston, and a selection of newspaper articles last week - which has since resulted in an embarrassing climb-down. A Committee peer wondered if Google's choice of a Robert Peston blog post was accidental.

"I'd better be careful what I say here," chuckled Hughes, who explained he had visited Google 10 days ago, when it had not yet processed a de-linking request.

"Mr Peston appeared to be on the top of Google's pile," he noted.

"That sort of series of events suggested to me that, quite understandably, people want to make sure their positions are known - and that they think the implications of the [CJEU] judgment might be a) extreme and b) it needs to be reined-in as soon as practically possible."

That's a diplomatic way of saying it could have been a PR stunt. Hughes continued:

"The judgment, however, is actually a very limited judgment."

Think of the startups

Hughes fell down in one area - when a peer worried that the CJEU ruling would have a disproportional impact on startups, such as a new search engine "in a garage in Newark".

This is something Google-funded lobby groups, such as one called Coadec, have advanced.

In fact, the CJEU explained its thinking in its ruling: Google has a massive reputational influence, it's ubiquitous in society, and is effectively republishing the same information over and over again. However a search engine with no users does not - and so could not be said to be invading anyone's privacy.

Hughes said he anticipated an increased workload for the ICO but then moving money around to meet demand would not create a crisis, remarking, "[D]iverting money is normal Government business."

He did offer Google a bone, promising to help it as new laws are written. (See our Special Report, here).

Google wants an exemption from EU privacy law - but even its own lawyers admit it doesn't have much of a chance, given the strength of feeling on data protection and privacy issues in Europe - and particularly in Germany.

"Google wants the law changed as quickly possible, and we will collaborate with them to achieve that. But we have to be careful - Google are an important company, but they're not the only company we have to look after," Hughes said. ®

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