Hong Kong to lobby Google over the 'right to be forgotten'

Watchdog seeks backing of region in bid to extend privacy net to Asia

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 4:53am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:31am

With Google bowing to a "right to be forgotten" ruling in Europe, Hong Kong's privacy chief will ask his regional counterparts to join him in pressing the internet search giant to extend the same safeguards to the region.

Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang revealed his plan ahead of the 41st Asia Pacific Privacy Authorities forum, which opens in Seoul tomorrow.

Privacy authorities from 15 jurisdictions including the US, Canada, Macau, Australia, and New Zealand will discuss privacy issues, including last month's European Court of Justice decision.

The court determined that people have the right to ask search companies to remove links to information about them that is "inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant or excessive".

The decision - which ruled search engines are covered by the EU's data protection laws - has left search companies in a bind as it provided little guidance on how to comply. It has also stirred fears of internet censorship, suppression of knowledge and the whitewashing of history.

Google has set up a web form to take requests in Europe. It said it would weigh each request with the public's right to know before making a decision.

Chiang said Google should extend the new service.

"As a responsible enterprise, Google should also entertain removal requests from other parts of the world to meet their privacy expectations," he said.

The city's privacy chief will raise the issue at the forum in South Korea and hopes to garner the support of his regional counterparts.

"We are not exercising a legal right but requesting a service that is available to EU citizens," he said, adding that he had already contacted his counterparts about the issue.

In the two weeks after the ruling on May 13, Google received about 41,000 requests, 12,000 on the day after it was delivered.

Chiang agreed there had to be a balance between the right to be forgotten and the public's right to know. But people with unflattering episodes in their past, such as spent convictions, old debts, old bankruptcy records or being the victim of false allegations were entitled to have them erased.

"This right is not an absolute right but subject to an overriding public interest. But these people should be given a second chance in life," Chiang said.

"We are not talking about rewriting history. For example, those with spent convictions currently protected by our rehabilitation law should be allowed to have their blemished records removed from the public domain."

But Chiang said a non-legal approach to dealing with the issue would be more appropriate for Hong Kong as Google and other search engines did not fall within the meaning of a "data user" governed by the city's privacy laws.

Also, the US company did not even have a data-processing operation in the city. The privacy chief therefore ruled out the possibility that a local internet user could make the same legal challenge against Google or other search engines.

"I don't think Hongkongers have the legal right to make the same challenge against Google."

While opting for a soft approach, other search companies will not be targeted at the forum since Google is the only firm that has introduced the search removal service.

The privacy watchdog last year received 82 complaints about the retention of personal data, with 54 removal requests made to the data users.