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Industry takes up cudgels over ‘right to be forgotten’

The UK newspaper industry is calling on Prime Minister David Cameron to ensure “greater transparency” from search engines over the so-called ‘right to be forgotten.’

A recent European Court ruling gave people the right to request the removal of “irrelevant” or “out of date” stories from search engine listings.

However local newspapers such as the Oxford Mail whose stories have been subject of such requests have defied it by reporting the attempts to unindex them and thereby giving them renewed prominence.

Now the Society of Editors has written to Mr Cameron asking him for reassurances that freedom of expression will be defended.

Executive director Bob Satchwell said the ‘right to be forgotten’ gave the industry “serious cause for concern.”

Wrote Bob:  “The judgement makes clear that Europeans now have the right to demand that certain online material is obscured in search results and its dissemination via search engines is stopped.

“For media organisations and journalists, this is akin to being asked – on the basis of the subjective opinions of individuals, rather than any specific Court order – to remove items from an index in newspaper archives.

“This is something we would only do after careful consideration based on a sound legal and factual basis and hope never to be asked to do more.

“We feel sure that neither the Information Commissioner nor the government would wish to see this happen but we seek assurances that any such moves will be firmly resisted and will not be applied in any new data protection legislation coming out of Europe in the future.

He went on:  “The Court’s ruling is deeply problematic for journalism in general, as it has the effect of limiting the accessibility and dissemination of journalistic work via search engines, where the media company wishes this to be done.

“This reduces the visibility of the vital work done by journalists to ensure accountability throughout society.

“For this reason, we believe that there should be greater transparency about the actions of search engines to comply with the European Court’s ruling.  Specifically, we believe there should be no restrictions on the ability of Google or other operators to inform the originator of material when links to that material are removed.

“Any restrictions would prevent publishers having the opportunity to make their case on freedom of expression grounds thus making the process one-sided.”

The letter added that the Society would be “more than willing” to meet Mr Cameron to expand on its concerns.

Justice Minister Simon Hughes recently told members of the House of Lords Home Affairs Committee that there is no such thing as a ‘right to be forgotten’ and that referring to it as such was not “accurate or helpful.”