Google could be forced to remove links to news stories about individuals from its search results, following a ruling today (13 May) by the European Court of Justice, backing the EU’s drive to introduce a “right to be forgotten” on the Internet.
Judges in Luxembourg said that internet search engine providers were responsible for processing personal data appearing on web pages published by third parties, such as newspapers. The decision must be taken into account by national courts across the EU.
Even if the publication of that information on those pages is legal, the search engines could still be compelled by national regulators to remove the links if the data breached EU privacy law, the judges ruled.
The ECJ said that some links could become incompatible with EU privacy law overtime even if the initial processing of the data was lawful.
This “right to be forgotten” enables people to request web companies to delete personal information from their servers, and is part of a 2012 European Commission proposal to revise EU privacy law. It was adopted by the European Parliament and is now with the European Council to be scrutinised by member states.
If there was a preponderance of public interest in the data being available such as the person involved being a public figure, national courts could reject a request to remove the links, the judges said.
The ECJ said, “The effect of the interference with the person’s rights is heightened on account of the important role played by the internet and search engines in modern society, which renders the information contained in such lists of results ubiquitous.
“In the light of its potential seriousness, such interference cannot, according to the Court, be justified by merely the economic interest which the operator of the engine has in the data processing.”
Google appeal in Spain
Google had appealed an order from the Spanish data authority to remove information about a man whose home was auctioned off to pay for unpaid taxes. It is one of 200 cases where Spanish regulators have asked Google to remove content.
The Spanish regulator did not compel La Vanguardia, a Spanish daily newspaper, to remove the two 1998 stories about a real estate auction to recover social security debt from its website. Instead it focused on Google and Google Spain.
A Spanish court referred the appeal to the ECJ for clarification on points of law. The ECJ did not settle the dispute itself and it is up to national judges, using the ruling as guidance, to decide on whether a case breaches an individual’s right to privacy.
Data privacy directive
ECJ judges ruled that Google collects and processes data as part of its search engine. This brings it under a 1995 EU directive, giving individuals the right to have access to and request the deletion of data held by companies.
In a February hearing Google argued it was not a data “controller” and should not be asked to remove information from its search engine that it is published legally elsewhere.
The court rejected Google’s argument that the processing of personal data by Google Search was unrelated to the context of Google Spain’s activities. It said Google Spain should be defined as an “establishment” of Google Search and so must apply EU privacy law.
A Google spokesman 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.”
In July last year, Advocate-General Jääskinen’s opinion on the case, a non-binding yet influential document, argued against the imposition of a right to be forgotten. It stated, “This would entail sacrificing pivotal rights such as freedom of expression and information.”
Google has a market share of more than 80% of Europe’s search engine market, according to research firm comScore. The company already voluntarily removes search results worldwide if requests are made under US law.