Google has started deleting some news articles in Europe to comply with a recent court ruling, sparking criticism that it is restricting freedom of speech.
Google has told the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent that it is removing some articles from its European search results in response to requests from individuals looking to make use of a 'right to be forgotten' ruling by the European Court of Justice.
Search engine users can now ask for results that include their name to be removed where they are "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant."
Google, which called the ruling "disappointing," has received over 70,000 such requests. It now has to weigh them against the public interest in information relating to crime, misconduct or malpractice.
"This is a new and evolving process for us," said a Google spokesperson. "We'll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling."
The company is clearly wrestling with the challenge of acting as judge and jury in cases that could have big implications for personal privacy and censorship.
A critical BBC blog about Stan O'Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch, was removed despite vocal protests from the journalist who wrote the piece.
Search results for 'Stan O'Neal' in Europe now include a note from Google saying, "Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe."
Free speech campaigners say the ruling has created confusion and placed far too much power in the hands of the search engines.
"There's no appeal mechanism, no transparency about how Google and others arrive at decisions about what to remove or not, and very little clarity on what classifies as 'relevant'," wrote Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship.
Google says it will assess each request and attempt to balance the privacy of the individual with "the public's right to know and distribute information."
It has created a form for people to submit requests. A committee including chairman Eric Schmidt and the company's chief legal officer may review the most sensitive requests.
The first few cases have generated such a storm of publicity that the individuals may now be regretting asking for the articles to be taken down, not least because they're still easily found on domains outside Europe, such as google.com.
Campaigners say the big search engines could take a stand against the ruling by insisting that national data protection authorities decide on the requests.
"The flood of requests that would be driven to these ... organizations might help to focus minds on how to prevent a ruling intended to protect personal privacy from becoming a blanket invitation to censorship," said Ginsberg.