Google is already fielding requests to remove objectionable personal information from its search engine after Europe's top court ruled that subjects have the "right to be forgotten," a source familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.
The world's No. 1 internet search company has yet to figure out how to handle an expected flood of requests after Tuesday's ruling, said the source, who is not authorised to speak on the record about the issue.
The decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which affects the region's 500 million citizens, requires that internet search services remove information deemed "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant." Failure to do so can result in fines.
"There's many open questions," Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the company's annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday in response to a question about the ruling and its implications on Google's operations.
"A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google's perspective that's a balance," Schmidt said. "Google believes having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong."
He was not asked about the recent take-down requests.
Google will need to build up an "army of removal experts" in each of the 28 European Union countries, including those where Google does not have operations, the source said. Whether those staffers merely remove controversial links or actually judge the merits of individual take-down requests is among the many questions Google has yet to figure out, the source said.
Google has had some experience dealing with take-down requests for its YouTube video website, which has a process to remove uploads that infringe copyright.
It has automated much of the process with a ContentID system that automatically scans uploaded videos for particular content that media companies have provided to YouTube, and may be able to create similar technology to address the EU requirements, said BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis.
Even if Google does not automate the process, the extra cost of hiring staffers is likely to be insignificant to a company that generated roughly $60 billion in revenue last year, Gillis said. If Google were to pay staffers $15 an hour to process take-down requests, for example, the company could get a million hours of work for $15 million, he said. "It's the cost of doing business for them."
The ruling means Europeans can submit take-down requests directly to internet companies rather than to local authorities or publishers under the ruling. If a search engine elects not to remove the link, a person can seek redress from the courts.
The criteria for determining which take-down requests are legitimate is not completely clear from the decision, said Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at the George Washington University and head of the National Constitution Center.
The ruling seems to give search engines more leeway to dismiss take-down requests for links to webpages about public figures, in which the information is deemed to be of public interest. But search engines may err on the side of caution and remove more links than necessary to avoid liability, said Rosen, a long-time critic of such laws.
He was asked by Google to speak to reporters on Tuesday's ruling, but has no formal relationship with the company.
Search engines will also have to authenticate requests, he noted, to ensure that the person seeking a link's removal is actually the one he or she claims to be.
Google is the dominant search engine in Europe, commanding about 93 percent of the market, according to StatCounter global statistics. Microsoft's Bing has 2.4 percent and Yahoo has 1.7 percent.
Google has said it is disappointed with the ruling, which it noted differed dramatically from a non-binding opinion by the ECJ's court adviser last year. That opinion said deleting information from search results would interfere with freedom of expression.
Yahoo is "carefully reviewing" the decision to assess the impact for its business and its users, a spokeswoman said in a statement. "Since our founding almost 20 years ago, we've supported an open and free internet; not one shaded by censorship."
Microsoft declined to comment.