Google has been accused of misinterpreting a European court's "right to be forgotten" ruling by deleting links to apparently harmless news articles in a bid to whip up anger against "censorship".
Articles about a former Merrill Lynch banker, the singer Kelly Osbourne, a football referee involved in a controversial penalty decision, and a "foul-mouthed" former president of the Law Society were among the first tranche of web stories to be removed from search results, it emerged yesterday.
• 70,000 ask Google to 'forget' them
The move by Google comes weeks after a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice which upheld the "right to be forgotten" and sparked a debate over how to balance freedom of expression and public interest with the right to privacy.
Details of the first article to be "hidden" by the search engine created a backlash against the court ruling yesterday, but by last night there were growing questions about how Google was handling the take-down requests.
Ryan Heath, spokesman for the European Commission's vice-president Neelie Kroes, said that Google's decision to remove a BBC article by the economics editor Robert Peston about the ex-Merrill Lynch boss Stan O'Neal - one of those blamed for helping cause the global financial crisis - was "not a good judgement".
He said he could not see a "reasonable public interest" for the action, adding that the court ruling should not allow people to "Photoshop their lives".
Describing Google's actions as "tactical", he added: "It may be that they've decided that it's simply cheaper to just say yes to all of these requests."
Last night, Google sources strenuously denied the suggestion they were misinterpreting the judgment.
Privacy campaigners accused the internet giant of playing "silly political games" in an attempt to undermine the ruling. Jim Killock, executive director, Open Rights Group, said: "The ruling was clear that results that relate to articles that are in the public interest shouldn't be removed." He added: "Google may dislike the ruling and want to discredit it, but that doesn't mean that they should apply it incorrectly in order to provoke a reaction."
Alexander Hanff, chief executive of the Think Privacy group, accused Google of removing links unnecessarily "in order to apply political pressure into having the ruling challenged".
He added: "They are hoping to use 'freedom of the press' as a means of attacking the decision and are effectively creating moral panic by making people believe that they are being forced to censor."
The European court ruling only applies to websites in Europe, meaning that people can still find stories by simply switching to a global website. Even in cases where Google is deleting links, the same content can still be found by searching using details of the subject rather than the names of individuals involved.
Among other stories, the internet giant has erased links to articles about a couple having sex on a train, and an airline accused of racism by a Muslim job applicant. The stories have not been removed by the media organisations concerned, which have not been given any reason for the deletions.
Secrecy surrounds the identities of those demanding that links to stories be removed, with Google refusing to divulge details.
Google is struggling to deal with the volume of demands. Around 70,000 requests for links to be removed have been made in the past month - more than 8,000 [8,497] of which were from Britain - it emerged yesterday. If all demands were met, more than a quarter of a million [267,550] web pages would be deleted - around 34,000 [34,597] as a result of complaints made by people in Britain.
Reacting to the deletion of links to his 2007 blog post about the financial crisis, Mr Peston cited the fact that the content can still be found by using Google's global website as making "a whole nonsense of the ruling".
Emma Carr, acting director, Big Brother Watch, cited Google's decision to remove a link to the blog, which featured "wholly accurate and legal content", as highlighting "exactly why the ECJ ruling was ridiculous and detrimental to freedom of the press in Europe."
And Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales, a member of an expert panel set up by Google to help it deal with the controversy, condemned the European ruling as "an utter and complete disaster" and branded it "a major human rights violation". The judgment is "clear and direct censorship of the worst kind," he said.
Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive, Index on Censorship, argued that companies like Google should not be "the final arbiters of what should and should not be available for people to find on the internet. She added: "If search engines really believe this is a poor ruling then they should make a stand against it by kicking all right to be forgotten requests to data protection authorities to make decisions."
In a statement last night a Google spokesperson said: "We have recently started taking action on the removals requests we've received after the European Court of Justice decision. This is a new and evolving process for us. We'll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling."
It is not just Google which is being swamped with demands for links to be removed. The rate at which the BBC is receiving requests for stories to be deleted from its website has prompted the broadcaster to issue new guidance on "unpublishing" content.
David Jordan, BBC director of editorial policy and standards, said: "Sometimes the people we feature in our news reports want the news about themselves to be erased so they can obscure the events they were involved in, or the comments they made to us and stop others finding them."
The new guidance states that material on the BBC website is part of a "permanently accessible archive" and will not be removed or changed unless there are "exceptional circumstances". It adds: "Removing online content, particularly news items, risks the accusation that we are erasing the past or altering history."
- The Independent