The company will soon block access to certain disputed links from all of its domains - including the main United States one, Google.com - when people in Europe use its online search engine, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
The move is the latest attempt by Google to comply with a May 2014 data privacy ruling by Europe's highest court, while also trying to minimize damage to the company's vast global database of digital information. That ruling, known as the "right to be forgotten" and hailed by many national data privacy officials in Europe, forced Google to comply with the region's tough privacy rules, even when those laws were at odds with the company's goal of providing unfettered information to people worldwide.
The 2014 ruling allowed anyone with connections to Europe to ask search engines like Google and the Bing service of Microsoft to remove links to information about themselves, if they could demonstrate that the information was wrong, no longer relevant or not of general public interest.
Google, which provides roughly 90 percent of the online search results in Europe, says that it has done its best to comply with the privacy decision but that the ruling should be limited to the 28 countries of the European Union (and other European countries like Norway). Since May 2014, Google has approved about 40 percent of the 386,000 requests from individuals to remove links, according to the company's transparency report.
Google, though, has been under continuing legal pressure from European countries - most notably France - that say the company has still not done enough.
At issue is a fundamental difference between European and US attitudes toward privacy. European law views people's right to privacy as equally important as that of freedom of expression. In the United States, in contrast, privacy is typically perceived as a consumer right, and not on the same level as the First Amendment protections for the free flow of information.
"There's a cultural gap between Europe and the United States," said Tanguy Van Overstraeten, global head of privacy and data protection at the Brussels office of Linklaters, a law firm. "In Europe, we have a very strong position that views privacy as a fundamental right."
The 2014 court ruling involved the case of Mario Costeja Gonzlez, a Spanish lawyer who had complained that entering his name in Google led to legal notices from 1998 that detailed his debts and a forced property sale. The lawyer said the debt issues had been resolved many years earlier and were no longer relevant. The court agreed, ordered Google to remove the links and gave other Europeans the opportunity to make similar demands.
Until now, Google has complied with the European court's decision to remove links to online material at the request of European residents, although it has balked at extending those privacy rights to its global domains like Google.com that would encompass its non-European users.
Now, Google will go further, in part to forestall legal disputes and potential fines from European national privacy agencies. The search giant has told Europe's national data protection authorities that it will start blocking certain links on all of its global domains - including Google.com - when they are viewed from the EU country where the original claim was made.
As part of the change, which will take effect by March, when someone succeeds in asking Google to remove or block access to a link for legitimate privacy reasons, the company will remove the link from its European domains - like Google.es in Spain, for example - and block access to the link from all of its global sites that can be used from the country where the request was submitted.
In practice, that would mean a successful request from someone in Spain would lead to the removal of the link from all of Google's European online search domains, while blocking access to it from all of its non-European domains - including Google.com - from that specific country.
Search results for individuals outside the European Union, including the United States, will not be affected, and links on Google's non-European domains will still be accessible from other European countries, according to the people with knowledge of h Google's plans.
The company has continually stressed that the European court ruling should apply only within the 28-member bloc. Google argues that if it agreed to alter all of its global search requests on behalf of the Europeans, other countries like China and Russia may soon demand that Google change its practices to meet their own national laws.
"In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world's least free place," Peter Fleischer, the company's global privacy counsel, said in a blog post last year.
Google has fallen afoul of Europe's privacy rules before, particularly in privacy-sensitive Germany. But several other US tech companies have also found themselves embroiled in complicated legal disputes over how they collect, monitor and use the data from the likes of people's social media posts, online search queries and e-commerce purchases, which are fast becoming digital currency for companies' lucrative advertising operations.
Facebook, for instance, has faced several legal challenges to how it collects data on European citizens, while the European Commission recently agreed to a new data-transfer agreement with the United States aimed at assuaging Europeans' concerns that their digital information is not sufficiently protected when companies move data across the Atlantic.
Yet it is Google that has often become the target of Europe's privacy concerns. That is partly because the company's activities stretch across people's daily digital activities through Google's dominant search engine, its ever-present mobile phone software known as Android and the company's other online services.
Despite Google's renewed efforts to appease European privacy concerns, it remains unclear whether the company's actions will be enough to head off the continuing legal challenges by Europe's national data protection authorities.
Elsa Trochet-Macé, a spokeswoman for the French privacy authority that has already fined Google for previous privacy infractions, said Thursday that the company informed Europe's data protection regulators last month about the coming changes to its search results, but that the French agency had not yet decided whether they meant that Google now complied with Europe's privacy rules.
"We're now analyzing the new changes," Trochet-Macé said.
© 2016 New York Times News Service