MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Europe's moves to rein in Google — including a court ruling this month ordering the search giant to give people a say in what pops up when someone searches their name — may be seen in Brussels as striking a blow for the little guy.
But across the Atlantic, the idea that users should be able to edit Google search results in the name of privacy is being slammed as weird and difficult to enforce at best, and a crackdown on free speech at worst.
"Americans will find their searches bowdlerized by prissy European sensibilities," said Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "We'll be the big losers. The big winners will be French ministers who want the right to have their last mistress forgotten."
Google says it's still figuring out how to comply with the European Court of Justice's May 13 ruling, which says the company must respond to complaints about private information that turns up in searches. Google must then decide whether the public's right to be able to find the information outweighs an individual's right to control it — with preference given to the individual.
"The ruling has significant implications for how we handle takedown requests," Google spokesman Al Verney said.
There will be serious technological challenges, said U.S. privacy lawyer David Keating in Atlanta. "It seems aspirational, not a reality, to comply with such a standard," he said. "The re-engineering necessary to implement the right to be forgotten is significant."
Because the court's ruling applies only within Europe, it will mean some fragmentation of search results. That is, Europeans and Americans will see slightly different versions of the Internet. A worst-case scenario would be if Google decides it must err on the side of caution and removes links liberally in order to avoid lawsuits, critics of the ruling said.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who has been an outspoken critic of the ruling, called it a "technologically incompetent violation of human rights." He said it amounts to censorship, and he predicted it will ultimately be scrapped.
Differences between the U.S. and Europe over privacy have never been greater, sparked by recent revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency secretly broke into communications on Yahoo and Google abroad and targeted overseas telecoms, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel's own cellphone.
Joel Reidenberg, visiting professor of information technology policy at Princeton University, said the ruling was not surprising, "given the current tenor of U.S.-European privacy relations as a result of … revelations."