Google’s “hump day” was anything but smooth yesterday. On the Asian continent, a Hong Kong judge ruled in favor of businessman Albert Yeung, who sought a lawsuit against Google in relation to autocomplete results that suggest he is linked to organized crime, while the Wikimedia Foundation launched its inaugural transparency report in London, providing Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales with a platform to criticize the European Union (EU)’s “right to be forgotten” ruling from May.
A “gravely injured” reputation
Yeung is a Hong Kong billionaire who is associated with the city’s celebrities through an entertainment company that forms part of his portfolio. Google did not remove autocomplete suggestions such as “triad” after objecting to Yeung’s defamation lawsuit, and advised Yeung to communicate with the websites that published the content instead. The businessman is now seeking compensation for a “gravely injured” reputation.
Yeung’s case is not a first for Google, as a German court ruled in favor of a nutritional supplements company in 2013 over the autocomplete function. A legal expert commented to the Associated Press that the outcome of the Hong Kong trial could set a significant precedent that impacts upon the manner in which Google manages its popular search engine in the future. Google declined to release an official statement following Judge Marlene Ng’s decision.
The right to remember
Wikimedia’s launch yesterday occurred at an auspicious time, as not only was it day one of Wikimedia’s annual conference—titled “Wikimania” this year—but the external advisory council that Google assembled following the EU court’s decision will begin its consultations throughout Europe next month. During the week prior to the launch, the Foundation received five notices containing information about Wikipedia links that will be removed from search engine results in compliance with European requests—all five notices were from Google. The notices were subsequently published on the Foundation’s website, under the heading “Notices received from search engines,” and appear below an introduction that states: “Compelled censorship is unacceptable, but compelled censorship without notice is unforgivable.”
Wales’ opinions about the “right to be forgotten” ruling were made public during the week that the Court of Justice’s decision was announced. While Google expressed disappointment and stated that it needed “to take time to analyze the implications,” the Wikipedia founder called the outcome “astonishing” in an interview with the BBC—part of his reaction was due to the EU advocate general’s 2013 comments that freed search engines from any such responsibility.
In addition to Wales’ perspective, free speech advocates feared for the future of free expression and freedom of information, and Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, shared his concerns in the Guardian publication, announcing to the public, “We need to talk.” In his July 10 article, Drummond informed Guardian readers of Google’s past search restrictions—“a very short list”—that were informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Content that was removed from search results included bank details, pirated content and promotional material for Nazism. Drummond then makes it clear that Google disagreed with the court ruling and uses an analogy in his explanation: “It’s a bit like saying the book can stay in the library but cannot be included in the library’s card catalog.”
By July 10, Google had already received more than 70,000 removal requests that covered around 250,000 web pages—not even a month had passed since the ruling. The following day, Google announced the formation of an advisory council “to gather input from Europeans” and Wales’ profile was published on the dedicated website page, alongside former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and media professor Peggy Valcke, among others. On its website, Google refers to the handpicked group as a “council of experts” and also includes an online form for members of the public to submit their comments.
One journalist’s view of yesterday’s launch describes Wales “attacking” those who make requests to have Wikipedia links removed from Google. Seated at a table with the Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director, Lila Tretikov, and Wikipedia’s general counsel, Geoff Brigham, Wales referred to his own practice to expound upon his previous claims of censorship: “Some people say good things, some people say bad things … that’s history, and I would never use any kind of legal process to try to suppress it.” Those in attendance were also notified that other Wikipedia links might have been affected without the Foundation’s knowledge, as search engines are not mandated to notify websites when corresponding links have been taken down.
The first report and possibly the last?
With the launch of a transparency report, Wikimedia follows the path taken by other hi-tech companies such as Apple and Twitter, whereby it will publish the information from all of the requests that it receives from government representatives seeking to obtain user data or to remove content from the Foundation’s websites. The first report is for the 304 content requests and 56 personal requests received during the period between July 2012 and June 2014. None of the content requests were granted, while Wikimedia complied with 14% of the user requests.
It appears that the interests of Wikimedia users are taken seriously by the Foundation. According to the Foundation’s procedures and guidelines, it will try its “best” to fight against “legally invalid” requests for user data and is “committed”, where possible, to notifying users by email at least 10 days before information is provided in response to a legal request. However, Wales informed the audience of the U.S. National Security Letters legislation that would forbid Wikimedia from notifying any person or organization about a request. While the law has not yet been applied, Wales explained that the Foundation’s silence would indicate to the public when it occurs.