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Right to be forgotten online? Not easy

London, May 30: Eoin McKeogh knows how hard it can be to make the Internet forget.

He started waging a court battle against the likes of Google, Facebook and Yahoo after a Dublin cabdriver posted a video in 2011 that showed someone who looked like him — but wasn’t — bailing on his cab fare. McKeogh, a university student who was in Japan at the time, was pilloried on the Internet after an anonymous user falsely named him as the fare dodger.

While the original video was taken down long ago, McKeogh continues to fight in court to expunge the digital trail. He is among the thousands of Europeans trying to erase their online histories.

In France, a mother recently sought to remove photos of her scantily clad teenage daughter from a website. In Romania, a woman tried to curtail online access to records of her divorce. In Britain, a former politician wanted to delete Google links to a book he viewed as defamatory towards him.

Such efforts have accelerated after a landmark decision by the European high court this month that will require Google and other search providers to consider individuals’ requests to remove links that they say infringe on their privacy.

In the first few days after the ruling, about 1,000 Europeans asked Google to take down links, with about half having criminal convictions and half not, according to people briefed on the requests. The requests included an actor seeking to expunge links to articles about an affair with an underage girl and a doctor seeking to take down negative reviews.

Search companies will face a considerable challenge in responding to the requests. Google alone handled more than 23 million requests in the last month to remove links to copyrighted material around the world. But much of those efforts are automated and address straightforward issues like taking down a link to a stolen movie.

Dealing with individuals who bring complaints in Europe promises to be more complex because it would most likely require additional employees to grapple with less clear-cut decisions. Google now has a Web form for Europeans to request that links be removed. The company also said it plans to create an advisory committee to “cultivate a public conversation about these issues”.

While the ruling appears to newly enshrine a “right to be forgotten”, Europe has long taken an aggressive stance on individual rights in the digital age. Each nation in the EU already has a data protection agency through which citizens can appeal for help in erasing their online histories.

The court decision stems from a case brought by a Spaniard, Mario Costeja González, who was concerned about the prominence given by Google to a short newspaper notice from the 1990s about a house he owned being sold off to pay debts. “I was never worried about my online image, I was worried about the impact on my work,” Costeja González, a lawyer, said in a brief interview.

But the tech industry has portrayed the decision as a blow against the free flow of information on the Web and a victory for those who want to cover up past misdeeds — including paedophiles, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous business people.

“A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google’s perspective that’s a balance,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, said in recent comments.

Indaco Systems, a Romanian company, operates a website that publishes Romanian court proceedings, which are released by the government. The company has received hundreds of complaints this year from citizens who are concerned about public access to court filings that involve them. Many of the complaints are spurred by Google links leading to the case records.

 
 
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