Last week, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that a 36-word article from 1998 describing Spanish man Mario Costeja González’ social-security debts and subsequent repossession of his home will no longer be linked to González’ person in Google search results.
While the court recognized that the newspaper had acted in the public interest in reporting the news, it also found Google’s link to the article in its search results represented an infringement of González’ privacy and “right to be forgotten.”
The Guardian said the ECJ ruling has “huge implications, and is hugely contentious,” potentially burdening online businesses and leading to tech giants closing European offices to escape the law’s reach — even before considering its freedom of speech verbiage.
In keeping with an earlier EU data-protection directive proposed in 2012, the top EU court recently said individuals have the right to control their data and can ask search engines to remove results in EU countries where Google establishes a branch to promote and sell advertising.
In those instances, the court regards Google as a “data controller.” Because Google has an established operation in Spain, it was found to be subject to the EU court’s decision.
EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding hailed the ruling in a post on Facebook saying it “confirms the need to bring today’s data protection rules from the ‘digital stone age’ into today’s modern computing world.”
Google says: “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.”
The “right to be forgotten” requires that Google delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its results when a member of the public requests it.
While this right will certainly help protect individuals from embarrassing photos, articles and insults made on social media, it also creates a dilemma for any company posting information online. And case-by-case decisions could tie up the court system for years.
“The court didn’t establish an absolute right to vanish: ‘a fair balance’ should be sought between the public’s right to access given information and the ‘data subject’s’ right to privacy and data protection,” reports The Guardian.
The results could become exceedingly strange: will people searching from the US be able to see the “private” data of EU citizens, while natives of those countries cannot? Or will companies with no EU footprint be able to serve up results, but those with sales offices in EU countries be required to censor them?
The result is either an eerie parallel with China’s domestic censorship of search results, or a huge incentive for tech investment to get the hell out of Europe. Neither, presumably, is a remotely desirable result.
The BBC says Google is receiving more takedown requests. One comes from a politician who wants mentions of his “behaviour in office” deleted. Another comes from a man who wants Google to remove information regarding his convictions for owning images of child abuse. A third comes from a doctor is who is seeking to delete negative patient reviews.