BRUSSELS Google has begun removing some search results to comply with a European Union ruling upholding citizens' right to have obsolete personal information about them hidden in search engines.
The so-called "right to be forgotten" was upheld by Europe's top court on May 13 when it ordered Google to remove a link to a 15-year-old newspaper article about a Spanish man's bankruptcy.
"This week we're starting to take action on removals requests that we've received," a Google spokesman said on Thursday. "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."
Google received over 41,000 requests over four days after it put up an online form allowing Europeans to request that search results be removed, raising fears that the freedom of information on the web would be trampled upon in Europe.
But the ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) only applies to EU countries, meaning links that have been removed in Europe will still appear in search results elsewhere, for example in the United States. Google also introduced an advisory at the bottom of search results which warns users that "some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe".
The advisory only appears for name searches originating in European countries, and it will appear irrespective of whether some links have been removed, in order to respect the privacy of those people trying to conceal information about themselves.
Internet privacy concerns shot up the agenda last year when former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of mass U.S. surveillance programmes involving European citizens and some heads of state.
The EU executive has been critical of several major U.S. web companies, such as Facebook and Google, over their handling of swathes of personal data. National governments recently moved towards extending Europe's strict data protection rules to all companies, not just European ones.
Google would not say how many removal requests it was granting or refusing, and citizens who are not happy with the company's decision will be able to pursue the issue with their national data protection authority.
The court set out broad criteria for Google to remove links to information, saying simply that it had to be "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" and that a balance had to be struck between privacy and the public interest when it came to public figures such as politicians.
Thursday's steps were just the beginning as the search engine devises a way to hide links appearing in connection with searches for someone's name.
(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Catherine Evans)