Google's removal of BBC article raises censorship fears

Google responded to the EU ruling on the "right to be forgotten" by removing articles from its European search rankings.

Story highlights

  • Google responded to the EU ruling on the "right to be forgotten" by removing articles from search rankings
  • The internet search company's action led to accusations of censorship and over-reach
  • The EU's highest court ruled that individuals can request the removal of some search results

British politicians and EU officials expressed concern on Thursday after it emerged that a seven-year-old article criticising a former Merrill Lynch chief executive was set to be removed from Google's search results.

The action, which comes as the internet search company responds to the EU ruling on the "right to be forgotten" by removing articles from its European search rankings, led to accusations of censorship and over-reach.

Titled "Merrill's mess", the 2007 blog post by Robert Peston, now the BBC's economics editor, describes how Stan O'Neal left the US investment bank after it suffered huge losses on risky investments.

In a blog post on Wednesday Mr Peston said the search company had in effect removed his article from the public record, "given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people".

He had earlier received a "notice of removal" from the search company, informing him that his article would no longer appear in the results of some searches.

Max Mosley on the 'right to be forgotten'
Max Mosley on the 'right to be forgotten'

    JUST WATCHED

    Max Mosley on the 'right to be forgotten'

MUST WATCH

Max Mosley on the 'right to be forgotten' 04:58
Will privacy ruling change the Internet?
Will privacy ruling change the Internet?

    JUST WATCHED

    Will privacy ruling change the Internet?

MUST WATCH

Will privacy ruling change the Internet? 05:23

In May, the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court, ruled that individuals had the right to request the removal of search results linking to "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" personal data -- even if the information had been published legally.

Google -- which opposed the court decision -- responded by introducing an online form giving visitors to its European sites a formal route to make removal requests. In the first four days after uploading the form, Google received more than 41,000 requests.

Two senior EU officials said Google's removal of the BBC article was a misinterpretation of the ECJ's ruling.

One, who did not want to be named, said: "The ruling and the European Commission have made it clear that the right to be forgotten should not be applied for journalistic work."

Earlier this year Viviane Reding, who stepped down this week from being the EU's justice commissioner to become a member of the European Parliament, said the court had "made clear that journalistic work must not be touched; it is to be protected".

However, the ECJ's ruling was a little more intricate. The court said the right to privacy could be waived if "justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of its inclusion in the list of results, access to the information in question".

But it also added that in some cases the public interest argument was valid only for the search engine of a news site, not for that of a general search engine such as Google.

Legal experts said the decision to remove Mr Peston's article highlighted the complexity of interpreting the new EU law and the difficulty in applying it to Google, which now had to act as a de facto freedom of expression regulator.

"There are some cases that are clear-cut but the majority of cases will be in a grey area like this one," said Eduardo Ustaran, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells in London. "Now it's up to Google to understand whether an article is in the public interest or not. That's tough for a company."

Dominic Raab, a British Conservative MP, said: "This draconian European court ruling risks turning internet search engines from being the great 21st-century emancipators of millions of ordinary people into arbitrary censors -- and a refuge for scoundrels and crooks looking to airbrush away their own unsavoury history."

Tracey Crouch, a Conservative MP on the culture select committee, said: "If critical articles are removed from Google searches at the request of persons named or unnamed, it could pose serious questions for lawmakers, the media and society."

Ben Bradshaw, a former Labour culture secretary, added that the company appeared to be over-interpreting the court ruling.

"Mr Peston is right to say the information he published is still relevant," he said. "I can't see why Google would do this. It is either a mistake or could be an attempt by them [Google] to whip up a storm of indignation against the regulatory authorities in an attempt to influence the bigger battles to come."

A link to Wednesday's article posted to the BBC journalist's Twitter feed has been retweeted more than 600 times.

Mr Peston conceded that he could simply be "the victim of teething problems" as the search company begins to implement the rules.

He added, however: "There is an argument that in removing the blog, Google is confirming the fears of many in the industry that the 'right to be forgotten' will be abused to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest."

The BBC has a right to appeal against Google's move and seek the view of the UK's data protection regulator, which has the right to overturn the search engine's decision.

It is not clear who requested the removal of the article from Google's search rankings. Mr O'Neal was the only individual named in the 2007 article, but Mr Peston pointed out in an update to his Wednesday night blog post that the request could have come from any of the readers who commented beneath the original article, or anyone named in those comments.

The blog post continued to appear under certain searches on Google's UK site on Thursday.

Google does not plan to remove links to personal information from the US version of its search engine, meaning Europeans can visit Google.com to search for information removed from their local version.

Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey

        CNN Business

      • An Iraqi worker adjusts a control valve at the Daura oil refinery on November 5, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq and a grouping of U.S and European oil companies Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell PLC signed a $50 billion contract today to develop the West Qurna oilfield, two days after the Iraqi South Oil Company signed a technical service contract with Britain's BP and China's CNPC to develop the Rumaila oilfield. The Iraqi government is trying to attract foreign investment, especially in the oil sector, in hopes of reviving its war-torn economy. Iraq has the third largest oil reserve in the world but it is producing way below its potential. (Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

        Why are Iraq oil markets stable?

        Airstrikes, rebels seizing control of oil fields, plus a severe refugee crisis are a recipe for market panic. So why are Iraq oil prices stable?
      • A view of gloves and boots used by medical staff, drying in the sun, at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Guekedou, on April 1, 2014. The viral haemorrhagic fever epidemic raging in Guinea is caused by several viruses which have similar symptoms -- the deadliest and most feared of which is Ebola. AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU (Photo credit should read SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

        Ebola's economic 'scare factor'

        The biggest Ebola outbreak in history is taking its toll in Western Africa, hitting some of West Africa's most vulnerable economies.
      • People enter a casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, on April 18, 2009. Las Vegas is the most populus city in the US state of Nevada and internationally renowned major resort city for gambling, shopping, fine dining and entertainment. Las Vegas which bills itself as the �Entertainment Capital of the World� is famous for the number of casino resorts and associated entertainment. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

        Casinos beat the banker

        Macau has overtaken Switzerland in the wealth stakes, being named the world's fourth richest territory by the World Bank.
      • spc marketplace middle east ata atmar a_00010015.jpg

        Bateel's new bakery venture

        Saudi Arabian Bateel brand is best known for its delectable dates but it now has more than a dozen cafes and a new bakery in the works.
      • Vantablack designed by Surrey NanoSystems absorbs 99.96% of all light. It however will not be the solution to the creating the world's ultimate slimming black dress! A dress made out of this material would render the curves and contours of the human body invisible and would leave the wearer looking like 'two dimensional cardboard cut-out.'

        Is this the real new black?

        A British nanotech company has created what it says is the world's darkest material. It is so dark the human eye can't discern its shape and form.
      • Move over Siri, here comes Jibo

        Jibo robot is designed to be an organizer, educator and assist family members. CNN's Maggie Lake met him and says she was impressed with his skills.
      • A picture taken on March 15, 2014 shows children playing at the sprawling desert Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan near the border with Syria which provides shelter to around 100,000 Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees in the seven-square-kilometre (2.8-square-mile) Zaatari camp in Jordan fear that President Bashar al-Assad's likely re-election this year will leave their dream of a return home as distant as ever. The brutal war in Syria between the regime and its foes shows no sign of abating and has killed at least 146,000 people since it erupted in mid-March 2011. And 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Jordan is home to more than 500,000 of the refugees.

        Jordan: Seeking calm in chaos

        Sandwiched in between Iraq and Syria, Jordan's destiny seems to be one of a constant struggle for survival. John Defterios explains.
      • SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 18: Queen Elizabeth II wears 3 D glasses to watch a display and pilot a JCB digger, during a visit to the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research centre, on November 18, 2010 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by John Giles - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

        Forget 3D, it's 4K now

        At the last football World Cup, it was all about 3D. This time around, it's nothing less than 4K.
      • An Iraqi worker adjusts a control valve at the Daura oil refinery on November 5, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq and a grouping of U.S and European oil companies Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell PLC signed a $50 billion contract today to develop the West Qurna oilfield, two days after the Iraqi South Oil Company signed a technical service contract with Britain's BP and China's CNPC to develop the Rumaila oilfield. The Iraqi government is trying to attract foreign investment, especially in the oil sector, in hopes of reviving its war-torn economy. Iraq has the third largest oil reserve in the world but it is producing way below its potential. (Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

        Where is Iraq's oil?

        Iraq produces 3.3 million barrels per day and has the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. But the current crisis is putting all this in danger.
      • Valves of gas pipe-line are seen in the gas station not far from Kiev on March 4, 2014. The European Union will help Ukraine pay the $2.0 billion it owes to Russian gas giant Gazprom, a top official said Tuesday, as part of an aid package reportedly worth more than one billion euros. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREY SINITSIN (Photo credit should read ANDREY SINITSIN/AFP/Getty Images)

        Why Europe needs Russian gas

        The gas standoff between Russia and Ukraine could have a knock-on effect on Europe. Explore this map to find out why is the EU nervous.