EU court rules on Google “right to be forgotten”

May 14th 2014

The Court of Justice of the European Union has endorsed the "right to be forgotten", telling Google it must delete "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" data from its results when requested by the person they refer to. The decision could clear the way for the deletion of many deletion requests including embarrasing posts, photos and insults on social media sites, according to some legal experts.

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The ruling came in a test case brought by Spaniard Mario Costeja González, who had failed to have a 1998 auction notice of his repossessed home deleted – saying that the matter had been resolved and should not be associated with him whenever people googled his name. Mr González  told the Guardian: "Like anyone would be when you tell them they're right, I'm happy. I was fighting for the elimination of data that adversely affects people's honour, dignity and exposes their private lives. Everything that undermines human beings, that's not freedom of expression."

In the case, judges ruled that under existing EU data protection laws, Google has to erase links to two pages on Catalonian newspaper La Vanguardia's website from the results produced when Mr González's name is searched. This is despite the rejection of his complaint against the newspaper by the Spanish data protection agency. The agency claimed that the information about him had been published lawfully.

The data in question could "appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive … in the light of the time that had elapsed". They added that even accurate data that had been lawfully published initially could "in the course of time become incompatible with the directive".

The judges said that the existing law already establishes a "right to be forgotten", pre-empting complex negotiations over a new data protection directive which could establish a limited "right to be forgotten".

The ruling establishes that Google and other search engines must be regarded as a "data controller" under the data protection laws in those EU countries where it establishes a branch to promote and sell advertising. But it was made clear that there is a balancing public interest defence against deletion, especially if the individual is involved in public life.

Mr González is the first of more than 200 pending cases against Google on the same grounds.

Mixed reaction

Viviane Reding, EU Justice Commissioner, welcomed the ruling, saying it was a clear victory for the protection of the personal data of Europeans. "The ruling confirms the need to bring today's data protection rules from the 'digital stone age' into today's modern computing world."

British Justice Secretary Chris Grayling openly opposes an explicit EU "right to be forgotten". The Ministry of Justice had said that the European Commission proposals could prove very expensive for British businesses. The Information Commissioner dubs the proposals "a regime that no one will pay for".

Responding to the ruling, Google said: "This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general. We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the advocate general's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications."

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