By Julia Fioretti
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Google's GOOGL.O handling of "right to be forgotten" requests from European citizens came under fire by regulators after the search engine company restricted the removal of Internet links to European sites only, a person familiar with the matter said.
Regulators quizzed Google over its decision to remove search results only from its European search engines such as google.co.uk, which means that anyone can easily access the same information by switching to the widely used google.com, said the source, who was present at the meeting.
The European Union's top court in May ruled that people have a right to request that years-old personal information that is no longer relevant be removed from Internet search results.
Google has so far approved more than half of roughly 90,000 incoming requests, sought additional information in about 15 percent of cases, and rejected around 30 percent of them, according to a source close to the company.
European data protection authorities on Thursday met executives from Google, Yahoo YHOO.O and Microsoft MSFT.O, which operates the Bing search engine, to discuss the implementation of the landmark ruling.
The search engine operators were also asked to provide more information by the end of the month on their implementation of the ruling, the source said.
The information will then feed into a set of guidelines to be drafted by regulators to help them deal with complaints from citizens over a search engine's refusal to remove a link.
A draft set of guidelines could be ready by mid-September, the source said. Google declined to comment on the details of the meeting.
Given that Google has already received over 90,000 requests, EU regulators are keen to ensure they adopt a coherent approach that fits in with the 28 different data protection regimes in place across the bloc.
Complaints from people whose requests have been refused by Google have begun to trickle in. The British privacy regulator had received 23 complaints by Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman said, while complaints to the French and Italian authorities were still in single figures.
Privacy regulators can take Google to court if it refuses to meet their demands, as happened in Spain where the "right to be forgotten" ruling originated.
Privacy experts say Google's removal of results from only European domains effectively defeats the purpose of the ruling.
"Google has claimed that the decision is restricted to localized versions of Google," said Ashley Hurst, a partner at Olswang, a law firm. "There appears to be no basis for that claim at all."
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION VERSUS PRIVACY
Google's renewed privacy troubles come at a time when the company is also grappling with a three-year-long antitrust probe in Europe.
A preliminary agreement struck with the EU's competition regulator in February that would have avoided a hefty fine for Google could now be revised amid intense political pressure.
Another issue raised by the EU watchdogs was Google's decision to notify the owners of the websites that have been removed from search results.
This sparked controversy three weeks ago when Europe's most popular search engine removed links to an article by a well-known BBC journalist about an ex-Wall Street banker and several links to stories in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
The authors of the stories promptly wrote about the removal, thereby drawing attention to the issue and feeding speculation about who requested the removal. Google eventually reinstated a few links to the Guardian articles.
EU privacy watchdogs are concerned about the effect the notification process could have on people making the requests. Google says it is necessary to ensure transparency and already notifies the owners of websites that are removed from search results because of copyright infringements.
Experts said the backlash over the newspaper articles showed the difficulty of implementing the privacy ruling given the broad criteria laid down by the court for information that is inadequate or irrelevant.
"This is not the absolute 'right to be forgotten,' but it is a specification of a relative right, which needs to be balanced against freedom of information," said Paolo Balboni, scientific director at the European Privacy Association, a think tank.
Google has recruited a panel of high profile academics, policymakers and civil society experts to advise it on how to implement the ruling.
(Editing by Mark Potter, Jane Baird and Steve Orlofsky)