Google’s Surprising Role as Privacy Watchdog in Europe

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Google’s European headquarters in Dublin. A court ruling intended to rein in the company has instead put it at the forefront of Europe’s enforcement of Internet privacy. Credit Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

Google is a top target for European regulators and privacy watchdogs, who openly fear and distrust its dominance. The American tech giant’s search engine alone gobbles up roughly 90 percent of the European market.

But a landmark court ruling intended to rein in Google has instead put it at the forefront of Europe’s enforcement of Internet privacy. That has upended conventional wisdom about the company and raised questions about the role of commercial interests in protecting people’s privacy, often with little or no transparency.

In the almost two years since Europeans gained the “right to be forgotten” on the Internet, Google has passed judgment in over 418,000 cases — roughly 572 a day — from people wanting links of certain search results to be removed, according to the company’s records. It has approved fewer than half of those requests, all behind closed doors.

Google’s total number of privacy-related judgments is double those of most of Europe’s biggest individual national authorities over the same period, even though these public agencies address a wider range of data protection complaints.

Despite a history of animosity toward the company, national regulators have handed over the review powers to Google with few complaints, saying they are merely following Europe’s complex data protection rules. Other search companies, including Microsoft, have been given the same authority, though their number of judgments pale by comparison.

Some consumer groups and privacy experts are not satisfied with that arrangement. They have sounded alarm bells over a for-profit company — one that relies on tapping into people’s digital lives to make billions of dollars and that is the subject of multiple privacy and antitrust investigations — playing such a central role in protecting individuals’ data, and doing so in such a secretive manner.

Google has not responded to requests, including an open letter last year from primarily European and American academics, to explain how its review process works. And since 2014, when “right to be forgotten” was enshrined, the company has declined to give any journalists access to its team of fewer than 50 employees — mostly lawyers and paralegals based at its Dublin offices — who review the demands. Google also did not respond to questions for this article about the decision process.

How Europe Is Going After Google, Amazon and Other U.S. Tech Giants

The biggest American tech companies face intensifying scrutiny by European regulators, with — pressure that could potentially curb their sizable profits in the region and affect how they operate around the world.

“It’s a half-baked solution,” said Luciano Floridi, a University of Oxford professor who previously sat on an advisory council to help Google handle its role as a de facto privacy regulator. “If Europe really wanted to regain control over personal data, giving Google this type of power is an odd outcome.”

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