Triumph of Privacy Rights or Censorship? EU’s New “Right to be Forgotten” Directive Gives People the Right to Have their Search Results Deleted
Today, the Court of Justice of the European Union made a landmark decision when it ruled that internet search engines could be compelled to remove information about individuals from its search results if it violated their privacy. The Luxembourg-based court stated that individuals had the “right to be forgotten,” which means that they could ask search engines like Google and Bing to remove sensitive information from their search results.
This ruling only applies to EU countries, and the ruling will have no impact on US search results, search results in other regions, and companies that have no servers in the EU. The new EU ruling was prompted by a complaint lodged by Mario Costeja González—a Spanish citizen— with Spain’s data protection agency, the Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD).
The actual complaint was lodged against a publisher of a Spanish daily newspaper, La Vanguardia Ediciones SL, as well as Google Spain and Google Inc. Mr. Costeja González complained that when users typed his name on Google search, the SERPs would display links to two pages from La Vanguardia,dated January and March 1998.
These pages contain an announcement for a real-estate auction of Mr. Costeja González’s repossessed home, with the aim of recovering social security debts owed by Mr. Costeja González. Mr. Costeja González asked the newspaper to remove the information, as the debt had been resolved 16 years ago and the information was “no longer relevant”. Moreover, Mr. Costeja González argued that the listing’s prominent position on Google’s SERPs could potentially damage his reputation.
Mr. Costeja González also wanted Google Spain and Google Inc. to remove or conceal the data so that it would no longer appear on Google’s SERPs. Unfortunately, the AEPD rejected the complaint against La Vanguardia, stating that the announcement had been lawfully published. The complaint against Google Spain and Google Inc., however, was upheld, and the AEPD asked Google to withdraw the information from its index and render access to the data impossible. In retaliation, Google Spain and Google Inc. brought two actions against the AEPD before the National High Court of Spain, requesting for the annulment of the AEPD’s decision.
The National High Court of Spain, in turn, referred the issue to the Court of Justice of the European Union. The following excerpt from the Court of Justice’s official press release provides more information:
An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties.
Thus, if, following a search made on the basis of a person’s name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results.
An EU directive has the objective of protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons (in particular the right to privacy) when personal data are processed, while removing obstacles to the free flow of such data.
The Court of Justice has effectively ruled that individual privacy rights trump all other considerations when it comes to handling personal data. The ruling applies to search engines even when the original data source (in this case, the newspaper publisher) is not required to censor the content and continues to publish it online.
While some analysts have hailed the new ruling as a triumph of human rights, the “right to be forgotten” directive could potentially create more issues than it resolves. While the Court of Justice states that the individual’s fundamental rights (i.e. the right to privacy) should be protected, that right must be weighed against the impact private data would have against the interests of the public.
The directive gives no concrete examples of situations where the public’s “right to know” would outweigh individual privacy rights. There is also the possibility that the new ruling might be abused by powerful entities, like businessmen and politicians, who might attempt to bribe national data protection authorities to censor certain results in search indexes.
Ironically, by upholding his right to privacy, Mr. Costeja González has called international attention to the very issue he’s been trying to blot out. For major search engines and online marketers, it remains to be seen how the new ruling will affect search indexing and online reputation management in the EU. Google might soon find itself inundated with search results removal requests from EU citizens.
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Do you think that the EU’s new ruling sanctions censorship? Are filtered search results in the EU an affront to freedom of speech? How will the new ruling affect online reputation management in the EU? Leave a comment or make a reply-blog post.
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