Right to be forgotten does not trump media freedom, EU claims

The Commission has said the ECJ ruling does not trump media freedom, despite Google removing links to news stories. [Robert Scoble/Flickr]

The European Commission has claimed the “right to be forgotten” on the Internet does not supercede media freedoms, after strong criticism from the UK’s House of Lords that called for the notion to be wiped out of draft EU data privacy legislation.

Peers branded a May ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – that has led to search engines like Google removing links to news stories from their search results – “unworkable, unreasonable and wrong in principle” in a report published today (30 May).  

“We do not believe that individuals should be able to have links to accurate and lawfully available information about them removed, simply because they do not like what is said,” said Baroness Usha Prashar, Chairman of the House of Lords EU Home Affairs, Health and Education Sub-Committee, which scrutinises draft EU legislation.  

The ECJ judgment backed part of a 2012 European Commission proposal to revise EU privacy law. It gives people the right to demand web companies delete personal information from their servers.

Although adopted by the European Parliament, the draft law has still not been approved by the Council of the EU, the institution which represents the 28 EU member states. The law can only come into force once both institutions agree an identical text. But the ECJ ruling means a form of the right to be forgotten is already in practice.

EU Commissioner for Justice Martine Reicherts said, “The recent European Court of Justice ruling does not elevate the right to be forgotten to a ‘super right’ trumping other fundamental rights, such as the freedom of expression or the freedom of the media.

“Finding the right balance is exactly the spirit of the on-going EU data protection reform: empowering citizens to manage their personal data while explicitly protecting the freedom of expression and of the media.”

Google had more than 70,000 link-removal requests from individuals across Europe in the 17 days since the judgment. Among those reported to have applied are sex offenders and disgraced politicians.

It has removed links to some stories in major news outlets, in what some commentators have said is a strategy to highlight the problems with the ruling. While search engines can reject requests, those can then be appealed to a national data regulator.

The ruling

ECJ judges ruled internet search engine providers were responsible for processing personal data appearing on web pages published by third parties, such as newspapers.

By classifying search engines as data processers, judges brought  them under a 1995 EU directive, giving individuals the right to have access to and request the deletion of data held by companies. The decision, despite the unresolved legislation, must be taken into account by national courts across the EU. The case originally related to a Spanish man who wanted a link to a 16 year-old article about him removed.


Baroness Pashar said there were compelling reasons why, in the new regulation, search engines should not be classed as data controllers.

“It is also wrong in principle to leave search engines themselves the task of deciding whether to delete information or not, based on vague, ambiguous and unhelpful criteria,” she added.

The 1995 directive was out of date, she said, and drafted before Google was founded.

The Lords committee called on the UK government to remove the right to be forgotten and a European Parliament amendment to it known as the “right to erasure” from the bill during negotiations in Brussels. MEPs strengthened the right in the amendment.

Should the UK pick up on the report’s recommendations, it could delay the passing of the whole legislative package.

The European Court of Justice ruled on 13 May that Google could be forced to remove links to online content that breaches EU privacy laws.

The ECJ ruled that Google should, under certain circumstances, edit or remove its Internet search results, backing the EU's drive to introduce a "right to be forgotten" on the Internet. 

The ruling followed a complaint in Spain by a man whose house was auctioned off 16 years ago to pay for unpaid taxes.

La Vanguardia, a Spanish daily newspaper, covered the case in two stories it wrote at the time, in 1998. But instead of asking the newspaper to withdraw it, the Spanish regulator focused on Google and Google Spain.

The “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. 

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