Top European Court To Debate ‘Right To Be Forgotten’

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Appeal to remove data from search engine to be debated in European court after Google refuses removal request

The controversial ‘right to be forgotten’ request is to be debated in Europe’s top court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ).

It comes after Google refused requests from four people, who have since filed appeals against the decision.

The ‘right to be forgotten’ was made into law in May 2014, when the ECJ ruled that search engine operators were responsible for links to web pages that contained personal information, and should therefore remove such links on request of the information owners.

Erase delete forget right to be forgotten key © Sarawut Aiemsinsuk Shutterstock

Right To Be Forgotten

The law applied to search engines such as Google and Bing, but as Google has by far the largest search engine market share in Europe, it is front and centre of the issue.

The law states that search engines should remove inadequate or irrelevant information from web results appearing under searches for people’s names.

Google for its part has previously protested against the law, but later began publishing transparency reports to show how it was (reluctantly) complying with the ECJ order.

These transparency reports have revealed that Google has so far received over 720,000 removal requests and accepted about 43 percent of them.

But now according to Reuters, four individuals had asked Google to remove links to webpages about them, but Google refused. They then appealed to the French data protection authority, the CNIL, but that watchdog agreed with Google’s refusal.

This prompted the four individuals to take their case to the French Conseil d’Etat, France’s supreme administrative court, which referred it to the Luxembourg-based ECJ, which will debate the issue.

A Conseil de’Etat statement reportedly detailed the reasons for the ‘right to be forgotten’ requests.

The first concerned the suicide of a member of the Church of Scientology, the second was a video that “explicitly revealed the nature of the relationship that an applicant was deemed to have entertained with a person holding a public office”.

The third and fourth request were from individuals either convicted or being charged with criminal proceedings.

Reluctant Compliance

“Put simply, the first issue – due to be heard by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the coming months – is whether people have an absolute right to request removal of lawfully published, but sensitive, personal data from search results,” blogged Google’s senior privacy counsel Peter Fleischer. “Or whether, as is the case now, search engines should continue to balance the public interest in access to information with the individual’s right to privacy.”

“The CJEU now has to decide whether “sensitive personal data” – such as the political allegiance of an individual, or a past criminal conviction reported in the press – should always outweigh the public interest,” he wrote.

“The tricky thing with this kind of information is that it is often important for people to know and it is frequently reported in newspapers and elsewhere,” he added. “Requiring automatic delisting from search engines, without any public interest balancing test, risks creating a dangerous loophole.”

“Such a loophole would enable anyone to demand removal of links that should remain up in the public interest, simply by claiming they contain some element of sensitive personal data,” he said.

The ECJ will consider the case over the next couple of months.

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