May 13, 2014 Last Updated 7:45 am

EU Court of Justice rules against Google in link case, reaffirms ‘right to be forgotten’

To the disappointment of Google, four rules that that the search engine must consider requests for removal of links

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg dealt Google, and potentially other search engines, a blow when it ruled that the company must, when requested, remove certain links from search results. Google expressed disappointment in the ruling and said it would take some time to analyze the ruling’s implications.

la-vanguardia-frontThe case before the highest court in the European Union involved the Spanish national Mario Costeja González who filed a complaint against the newspaper La Vanguardia, as well as against Google and Google Spain, with the Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (Spanish Data Protection Agency). The complaint requested that the paper and the search engine remove links to articles dating back to January and March of 1998 which described a real estate auction that would be held for the purpose of recovering social security debts owed by Costeja González.

In that case the Spanish agency rejected the complaint against the newspaper, but upheld the complaint against Google and requested that the company remove the information from their index. Google then appealed to the Audiencia Nacional (National High Court, Spain), and that court referred a series of questions to the Court of Justice. Today that court, in effect, reaffirmed the ruling and the concept of the right to be forgotten. (PDF of ruling)

“Finally, in response to the question whether the directive enables the data subject to request that links to web pages be removed from such a list of results on the grounds that he wishes the information appearing on those pages relating to him personally to be ‘forgotten’ after a certain time, the Court holds that, if it is found, following a request by the data subject, that the inclusion of those links in the list is, at this point in time, incompatible with the directive, the links and information in the list of results must be erased. The Court observes in this regard that even initially lawful processing of accurate data may, in the course of time, become incompatible with the directive where, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, the data appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed. The Court adds that, when appraising such a request made by the data subject in order to oppose the processing carried out by the operator of a search engine, it should in particular be examined whether the data subject has a right that the information in question relating to him personally should, at this point in time, no longer be linked to his name by a list of results that is displayed following a search made on the basis of his name. If that is the case, the links to web pages containing that information must be removed from that list of results, unless there are particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public in having access to the information when such a search is made.”

logo11wThe ruling gives Google wiggle room to not remove links in certain cases, but it does demand that Google review the request, something that the company could consider a heavy burden.

“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,” Google said in a statement.

The ruling is consistent with new efforts to protect the privacy of citizens against vast and automatic data collection.

“Today’s Court Judgement is a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans!” said Vivane Reding , European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. “Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world.”

One criticism of the concept of the right to be forgotten is that it infringes upon free speech. But where there is no speech, but merely the processing of information, free speech does not come into play, the court seems to be saying. The newspaper, on the other hand, had the right to publish the original information.

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