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Top EU court backs ‘right to be forgotten’ in Google privacy case

13 May 2014
scales of justice

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has issued a decision backing the so-called 'right to be forgotten' that would force search firms to remove links to results that are outdated or unwanted by individuals.

The ECJ's decision in support of the so-called ‘right to be forgotten' issue means Google and other providers will have to remove search results that infringe on an individual's privacy.

In its decision, the ECJ said that Google and other search providers should act to remove links when requested and could be coerced into doing so by the authorities if they resist initial applications for change (PDF).

The case was brought by a Spanish man who claimed that an auction notice of his repossessed home returned by a Google search was an infringement on his privacy.

Google told V3 it was disappointed by the decision and would consider its response.

"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," said a Google spokesperson. "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."

Google is harking back to a recommendation to the Court of Justice by advocate general Niilo Jääskinen last year in which he said Google and other search engines are not subject to privacy requirements under current European data protection law.

In contrast, EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding welcomed the ruling, taking to Facebook to declare a victory in Europe in the fight to protect personal data.

"Today's court judgment is a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans. Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world," she wrote.

"The data belongs to the individual, not to the company. And unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered – by law – to request erasure of this data.

"The ruling confirms the need to bring today's data protection rules from the ‘digital stone age' into today's modern computing world where data is no longer stored on ‘a server', or once launched online disappears in cyber-space."

The Open Rights Group thinks differently though, and in a statement it said that the decision raises concerns and the spectre of censorship.

"We need to take into account individuals' right to privacy but this ruling raises significant concerns,” said Javier Ruiz, policy director at ORG. "If search engines are forced to remove links to legitimate public content, it could lead to online censorship. This case has major implications for all kind of internet intermediaries, not just search engines."

These concerns were echoed by Ovum analyst Luca Schiovani who said that while it sounded like a victory for individuals and privacy, it would put huge burdens on search firms that could prove onerous.

“This decision sets a precedent whereby, upon request, search engine providers will have to update their search results when it is found that they point to information that is no longer relevant or accurate with regard to a person," he said.

"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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Dave Neal

Dave Neal is a reporter at The INQUIRER. Previously he worked at, VNUnet, and IT Week in editor and journalist roles.

He started his career when the Y2K bug was a front page story and remains committed to covering the interesting world of technology news.

He left the world of office working four years ago and now represents The INQUIRER from home in Kent with his dog.

Dave has been quoted in papers including the London Metro.

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