'Right To Be Forgotten' Request Prompts Google To Remove 1998 Article On Tantra Sex Workshop

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Nearly 5 million Google users are named in a recent hack that appears to have originated in Russia.

A European man is among the most recent Internet users to successfully petition Google to remove information about him from the Web that he thought was unflattering.

This month, in response to a May European Union “right to be forgotten” court ruling, Greg Lindae, a private-equity investor based in the Netherlands, was granted his request by Google  Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL) to have an article from 16 years ago that mentioned his participation in a Tantra sex workshop taken down, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.

The Wall Street Journal article from 1998 titled “Ancient Hindu Sex Practice Gets a New-Age Makeover”  listed Lindae -- among 20 others -- in its first sentence. It concerned the burgeoning business of Tantra, a style of sexual meditation with roots in 5th century A.D.  India. Lindae argued that the article “could and in fact is having a material effect on my career.” 

“It isn’t like knowing Greg Lindae was involved helps your knowledge about this subject,” Lindae told the Wall Street Journal.

Since Google created an online form in May through which European Union members could petition Google administrators to take down certain links to personal information, the company has received tens of thousands of appeals. Within 24 hours of posting the form, Google received more than 12,000 requests for link removals. Two months later, that number has risen dramatically to 70,000.

Google began taking down links in June.

Among those who initially requested Google censor their information were a pedophile, a politician and a doctor, and the company has since disclosed a variety of other requests. Google’s legal officer, David Drummond, asked that an article mentioning his possible connection to a crime for which he was never charged be removed. Another petitioner, a mother, wanted a piece that named her daughter as a victim of abuse to be erased.   

The controversial topic of Internet privacy has received more airtime in recent years, especially in Europe where, in May, Europe’s top court decided that people can petition Google to delete sensitive information about themselves from Google search results for their names. Several European Union states, notably France and Spain, have come out in favor of laws that would allow people to erase some of their digital footprints from the ever-expanding landscape of information that is the Web.

The idea behind the court’s ruling was that some information about an individual could be inaccurate, no longer relevant or excessively invasive, and that EU citizens have the right to request that that information be taken down.

"If, following a search made on the basis of a person's name, the list of results displays a link to a Web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results," the judges said.

Earlier this month, Google said it was having trouble handling the tens of thousands of requests the company has received so far. The company said it must handle each request “individually” with almost no context as the form only asks that petitioners provide a link to the article they’d like taken down.

“It's a complex issue, with no easy answers,” Drummond wrote earlier this month. “So a robust debate is both welcome and necessary as, on this issue at least, no search engine has an instant or perfect answer.”

Google says via its form that the company will “assess each individual request and attempt to balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public's right to know and distribute information."

The ruling has pitted free speech defenders against advocates of privacy rights. Many see the removals as an infringement on freedom of the press.

“We believe that our editors’ decision in 1998 that this article was in the public interest still abides today,” Mark H. Jackson, general counsel of Dow Jones, which is a unit of News Corp., told the Wall Street Journal.

Websites have emerged that expose the links removed by Google in retaliation to what many have seen as censorship. Then there’s the added complication that Google alerts about the removals present; someone wishing to be forgotten, as Lindae did, end up back in the public eye.

"All this talk about rewriting history and airbrushing embarrassing bits from your past -- this is nonsense, that's not going to happen," Information Commissioner Christopher Graham told the Guardian.

Google continues to take requests and says it's “still very much a work in progress.” 

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