Google is being forced to create "information gaps" and act as a "false court ruling on a false right", according to the editor of the Spanish edition of the Huffington Post.
Montserrat Domínguez, who produces El Huffington Post in a joint venture with the Spanish newspaper El País, gave evidence in Madrid at the first of seven hearings organised by Google as the search engine wrestles with how to implement the European court ruling on the right to be forgotten.
Google revealed on Tuesday that it had received 120,000 requests from individuals to remove certain links from the results of searches for their name. These have led to more than 457,000 links to articles, websites, tweets, blogs, photos and Wikipedia entries being removed from Google's index between 30 May, when it began to implement the ruling, and 1 September.
"Removing or de-indexing information … runs contrary to the rights of citizens to access information and is contrary to transparency," said Domínguez. "Transparency is something we demand from our governments, our NGOs and our institutions. This is creating information gaps. This is a false court ruling on a false right."
Domínguez, who is also vice-president of the Association of European Journalists, called for editors to be involved in deciding whether information should be removed from search results, because they would be able to give local context to the information in deciding whether it qualified as obsolete or no longer relevant under the ruling.
To draw up guidelines on how it should handle the right to be forgotten, the search engine has convened an advisory council of eight independent experts, including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Le Monde editorial director Sylvie Kauffmann and UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue, as well as two Google executives – chairman Eric Schmidt and chief legal officer David Drummond.
Google's company jet is on standby for the panel's European tour, which will reach London on 16 October before concluding in Brussels on 4 November. It launched on Tuesday in Madrid, because Spain is home to Mario Costeja González, whose demand to have the repossession of his home forgotten by Google was used as the test case for the ruling.
"We need to balance the right to information against the rights of privacy," Schmidt said before he and other panel members heard testimony from data retention, privacy and human rights experts.
Alejandro Perales, who represents consumers of media as president of the Spanish Communication Users Association, said: "There is a thing called universal access and the right to be forgotten cannot become a right to impunity."
Like Domínguez, he said Google should not act alone in deciding whether to take down links. "Social organisations and regulatory authorities should play a much more active role, not just limited to making sure that the removal has taken place. They should be involved in the decision."
Describing the right to be forgotten as a "romantic term", Perales said the new law would be better described as "right to suppression, to eliminate access to information".
Google council member La Rue said there was a grey area when the ruling was applied to those convicted of child abuse or sex crimes. "It is perfectly legitimate that someone tried and sentenced for a crime is entitled to be fully reinstated in society. Those who work for childhood rights claim this is not valid in the case of paedophiles or sexual abuse. The interest of the girls or the minors abused prevails over the rights of the person sentenced for these crimes."
The academic Luciano Floridi, also a member of the Google council, criticised the new legislation. "I don't think that the ruling has established an adequate legal framework," he said. "It has not taken into account all the agents in the chain of information provision and it gives great power to a third party which might not have been very keen on getting this power, and I'm referring to the search engines."
Most of the eight witnesses criticised the legislation, but Luis Javier Mieres Mieres, a professor of constitutional law at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, argued that the crimes of private individuals should legitimately be forgotten.
"Irrespective of the seriousness of the crime, I think that private individuals, if there is not a current public interest on that information, are entitled to have removed that reference to a crime that he or she has committed in the past," he said.
Mieres said exceptions should be made for the crime of genocide, so that society could remember the mistakes of the past, and for public figures such as artists or politicians, even those in retirement. "This allows the public to debate the standards of conduct we demand from public personalities," he said.
The Spanish supreme court magistrate Pablo Lucas Murillo also spoke in favour of the ruling, saying it "transfers to the digital world the effects of time and distance". He said: "The cancellation of files, the reincorporation of former inmates to society and the concept of rehabilitation, these conditions have been absent in the digital realm and time and space do not have the same bearing on reality as in the past."
Wales, who has criticised the ruling in the past, said it was the digital equivalent of removing books from a library. Among the links to Wikipedia removed by Google are an image of a young man playing a guitar and a page about the Italian gangster Renato Vallanzasca. "The predominant means people use today to get information is through a search engine, in the same way that they used to walk into a library and ask the librarian for the book or look in the card catalogue," Wales said.
The advisory council's next hearing takes place in Rome on 10 September.
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