Google in Europe
A man takes pictures with a Google Street View Camera in Plaza Sant Jaume in front of the town hall of Barcelona on April 8, 2014. Reuters/Gustau Nacarino

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) announced on Thursday that its software engineers have begun removing certain results from searches to comply with a recent European Union court ruling that individuals have the “right to be forgotten” from vast online inquiries. Only a fraction of the 41,000 Europeans who asked for outdated links to be removed from Google's search results have had them removed thus far, and the company warned that the task would take time.

An EU court decided on May 13 that people living in Europe had the right to request that links with “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information about them be removed from search results. Google is not required to comply with every request, only to evaluate whether it would be in the public’s best interest to do so. It isn't required to remove the corresponding data from its servers, either, only to eliminate search results pointing to that data elsewhere online.

“This week we’re starting to take action on the removals requests that we’ve received,” a Google spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. “This is a new process for us. Each request has to be assessed individually, and we’re working as quickly as possible to get through the queue.”

While the ruling doesn’t apply to Internet users outside the 28 European Union countries, those who reside in those countries (as well as those in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) can submit their own requests free of charge.

Now, after Google removes those search results, the first page of the search results includes a notice that “Some results may have been removed under a data protection law in Europe.” The message is similar to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act notices that accompany search results that, if unregulated, would include content that infringes on existing copyrights.

European Union officials criticized Google when the search giant said it was considering returning the search results with a more specific message about the individual in question, claiming that such a move would undermine the law’s intent by making it clear a person wanted results about himself removed.

Larry Paige, Google’s chief executive, said that almost a third of the requests so far have been in relation to some kind of fraud, one fifth of the requests concerned a serious crime, and 12 percent were related to child pornography arrests.

The May decision sparked an international debate over how much power regular citizens have over their own reputation in the age of information. Free-information advocates said the requests constitute censorship and could affect the public’s ability to assess if a potential employee, for instance, has a record that could put others at risk.

Members of the Google advisory committee charged with examining the requests, a panel that includes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, thought the ruling is a waste of time.

“I think the decision will have no impact on people’s right to privacy, because I don’t regard truthful information in court records published by court order in a newspaper to be private information,” Wales told TechCrunch. “If anything, the decision is likely to simply muddle the interesting philosophical questions and make it more difficult to make real progress on piracy issues.

“In the case of truthful, non-defamatory information obtained legally, I think there is no possibility of any defensible ‘right’ to censor what other people are saying.”