BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The lawyer who last year forced Google to remove links to defamatory information about him, is now hoping to convince the European Commission to introduce rules to make it easier for others to remove harmful information online.
Dan Shefet, a French lawyer born in Denmark, met a key EU policymaker on Monday to discuss his proposals for ensuring search engines delist harmful content globally, not just in the 28-nation European Union.
Shefet’s mission to make search engines legally responsible for the information they display, chimes with growing unease across political and business circles in Europe over the market power of mostly U.S. tech giants and their approach to privacy.
The Commission, the EU executive, is currently assessing whether “online platforms” should be regulated more tightly and face a “duty of care” to proactively remove illegal content.
The companies concerned strongly object, saying that would risk hurting the freedom of speech.
In Shefet’s case, Google removed the defamatory links from search results across all its European domains, but not worldwide.
But the ebullient 60-year old lawyer says that since his court victory in Paris in September he has been contacted by hundreds of people who were unable to have links to harmful information about them removed from search results.
“Sometimes you’ve got to stand up for a principle and then you don’t count your time,” said Shefet, who specialises in European competition, IT law and privacy.
“Never in the history of mankind has so much information been controlled by so few,” he said.
Shefet said his meeting with the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Guenther Oettinger, went very well, adding that Oettinger had promised to invite him back for longer talks.
In December, Shefet set up the Association Against Internet Defamation, Denigration and Harassment (AAID) to help push for new rules. He stresses that it is not “anti-Google”.
Google declined to comment for this article. Its legal support page says that it will consider “blocking, removing or restricting access” to illegal content upon request.
Google is currently implementing a May 2014 EU court judgement on the “right to be forgotten”, ordering it to remove links to outdated or irrelevant information appearing under searches for people’s names.
The company maintains that it should only apply the ruling across its European domains, such as Google.fr in France and Google.de in Germany.
But EU data protection watchdogs, many legal experts and former German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who has been among external experts advising Google on privacy following the European ruling, think it should be global.
“What is the responsibility of ISPs (Internet service providers) in the future?” she told Reuters, raising the issue of legal recourse against them.
“We have to find the right red line where harassment is beginning and freedom of speech is reaching its limit,” said Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who is a member of Shefet’s AAID.
Tanguy Van Overstraeten, a partner at law firm Linklaters, said recent national court decisions in EU countries suggest Google will struggle to defend its position.
In Britain, for example, Google admitted that Google.com was widely used there.
Oettinger, a German conservative, has in the past criticised American tech companies for flouting European rules. In one speech he likened them to a “huge electronic vacuum cleaner” sucking up Europeans’ data to California and selling it on.
Shefet said Oettinger was open to the idea of new rules to protect businesses and people against online denigration as the Commission prepares legislative proposals to create a single market in digital services. However, it is unlikely there is time for any new rules to be included in new EU data protection regulation expected to be finalised this year.
An EU official called Oettinger’s meeting with the campaigners “very constructive” but declined to elaborate.
Alvaro Gil-Robles, a former human rights chief at the 47-nation Council of Europe, who is also a member of Shefet’s AAID, said he believed new regulatory curbs were coming for tech giants. He told Reuters: “They cannot do whatever they want.”
(This version of the storey corrects to show that Google removed the defamatory links from European domains only, not worldwide)
Editing by Elaine Hardcastle