AMSTERDAM – As Google bowed to a European court ruling to consider users’ requests to remove embarrassing search results, the company took the first step toward acknowledging it has an image problem in Europe.
The company was stunned this month when a court said it would have to accept Europeans’ right to be forgotten online and field their requests to delete links to personal information in search results.
Google opened the doors to such applications Friday and took the opportunity to offer a new, humbler message to European authorities.
I wish we’d been more involved in a real debate in Europe, Google CEO Larry Page said Friday. That’s one of the things we’ve taken from this, that we’re starting the process of really going and talking to people.
Google, which since its early days has put a premium on keeping a positive image, has taken a beating in Europe in recent months.
Its public relations machine seemed to run completely off the rails in May, when the European Court of Justice enshrined the right to be forgotten – a concept Google fought hard to undermine, saying it amounted to censorship.
Criticism of Google’s dominance in search – it enjoys a 90 percent market share in Europe – reached a fever pitch this year, with competing search engines, major publishers and consumer rights groups attacking the company.
Politicians began openly using the company as a punching bag. Shortly before European elections, Germany’s economic affairs minister criticized the company for its tax avoidance, privacy policies and dominance, even suggesting that it might need to be broken up.
And in a development that should deeply concern a company whose motto is Don’t Be Evil, some European online-freedoms groups are now identifying it as public enemy No. 1.
That has boosted the case for the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, to demand that Google change the way it displays its search results to allow for greater competition.
If the two can’t reach a compromise, Google could face fines worth billions of dollars, as Microsoft did in the 2000s.
Anti-Google sentiment used to be an edge phenomenon, said Hans de Zwart of Bits of Freedom, a Dutch digital-rights group.
Now it’s slowly moving toward the core, he said. More and more people are feeling this.
Reasons for the company’s fall from favor include products such as Google Glass that raise privacy concerns, as well as ripple effects from recent revelations about U.S. government spy programs.
Zwart said that fairly or not, in many Europeans’ minds, Google has become directly linked to the National Security Agency.
Now we have a very clear argument for why it is a bad idea to store data in a centralized fashion with an American company, Zwart said.