EU Court Tells Google To Abide By The ‘Right To Be Forgotten’

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It looks like users from the EU will be able to edit results which come up when someone searches for their name

The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) has ruled that search engine operators are responsible for links to web pages that contain personal information, and should remove such links on request of the information owners.

In a case of Google versus Costeja González, a Spanish national who experienced financial difficulties in the nineties, the US company has to remove links to two newspaper stories from 1998 that mention his bankruptcy auction.

This landmark ruling means that European citizens should be able to edit the content which shows up when someone searches for their name. It also reinforces the “Right to be Forgotten” – the notion that a user of online services should be able to erase all of the identifiable data they have stored with those services.

Good intentions

antb“Today’s judgement is strong tailwind for the data protection reform that the European Commission proposed in January 2012 as it confirms the main pillars of what we have inscribed in the Data Protection Regulation,” European Commissioner Viviane Reading wrote in a post on Facebook.

The ‘Right to be Forgotten’ was proposed in 2012 as part of the Data Protection Regulation which sets out measures for protection of personally identifiable information in the EU. Google has expressed its disappointment with the outcome of the trial, while some critics accused EU of paving the way towards Internet censorship.

González sued Google in 2010 after he discovered two articles published by La Vanguardia, which detailed the sale of his house to recover social security debts. In the filing, he said the matter had been resolved and should no longer be linked to his name.

In response, Google argued that it does not control personal data, but simply provides links to existing information freely available online. The Spanish High Court upheld the complaint, Google appealed the decision and the case was then transferred to the ECJ.

Today, the highest European court has ruled that search engines have a degree of control over private information, and should accept responsibility for its management, in accordance with the Data Protection Regulation.

Right to be forgotten

“This information potentially concerns a vast number of aspects of his [individual’s] private life and without the search engine, the information could not have been interconnected or could have been only with great difficulty. Internet users may thereby establish a more or less detailed profile of the person searched against,” states an ECJ press release.

“Furthermore, the effect of the interference with the person’s rights is heightened on account of the important role played by the internet and search engines in modern society, which render the information contained in such lists of results ubiquitous.”

The court ruled that search engines should delete links to information which is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” – and González claimed that the information published by La Vanguardia was no longer relevant. The judge added that private information should be kept online if it serves the public interest.

The results of the trial could have far-reaching consequences – Google previously warned that ‘Right to be Forgotten” would lead to more Internet censorship. Critics of the measure say it would be difficult to implement, since it tasks search providers with the difficult job of deciding whether a particular piece of content satisfies the criteria for removal.

“This move may sound reassuring for individuals and their personal freedom; however, it also looks difficult to enforce on a large scale, and may be very disruptive for the functioning of search engines going forward.” commented Luca Schiovani, analyst at Ovum.

“These provisions should only apply to the direct controllers of personal data (e.g. a social network complying with the request to fully delete information related to an account); involving search engines for something they are not directly responsible for is likely to entail a burdensome cost, especially if the amount of requests of erasure should escalate in the future.”

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