Google loses 'right to be forgotten' fight in Europe's top court

Google loses 'right to be forgotten' fight in Europe's top court

Summary: Europeans will now be able to ask Google remove search results that contain links to irrelevant information.

TOPICS: Google, Legal, Privacy, EU

Europe's highest court today ruled that search engines can be ordered to remove links to publicly available news items from their search results.

The decision by the European Union Court of Justice (ECJ) has dealt a blow to Google in Europe. The company had, through its Spanish operation Google Spain, appealed an order by the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) that stipulated that the company had to remove links to two pages published in 1998 by Spanish newspaper La Vanguadia.

The order followed a complaint by a Spanish national to the AEPD in 2010, after he found that searches for his name made through Google returned links to the two pages, which contained details about a real-estate auction that was held to settle social security debts. Essentially, the complainant believed the links highlighted details about his history that were no longer relevant.

While the man's request that the newspaper remove the two pages in question was knocked back, the AEPD did order Google to remove the links from its search results — a decision Google then appealed against.

At the heart of today's ruling is the question of whether the existing 1995 Data Protection Directive can be used by a data subject (in this case, the Spanish national) to request to be "forgotten" by a data controller (Google). Interestingly, the introduction of a so-called "right to be forgotten" was a key plank in Europe's 2012 proposed overhaul of the 1995 directive, which means the right may exist even before the update to the directive has officially been made law.

According to the ECJ, "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".

Complicating Google's compliance with the order — and how it handles future removal requests — is the ECJ's view that the legality of the company's indexing and collection of "accurate" data may shift over time.

"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."

If a request to be forgotten meets those conditions, Google and other search engines would be obliged to examine what results are returned when a person's name is searched and whether they contain links to the offending information.

"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," the ECJ noted.

Google and other web companies will now also be obliged to "duly examine" all removal requests on their merits and where one is declined, the complainant can take their case to a relevant authority.

Google said in a statement: "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."

Read more on this case

Topics: Google, Legal, Privacy, EU

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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  • Now apply that rule to the NSA.


    One problem with that is that it can be used to destroy history.
    People will want to delete "unflattering" articles when they want public office... So expect a flood of "removals" just before they announce their intentions to run for public office.

    Hopefully, the request for deletions will be available for searching...
    • Google is just a facilitator, and removing a person's history from

      a search engine, or from the internet, does not mean that, the public records for that person will also be erased.

      In the U.S., when a person decides to run for public office, his/her entire history, including some very private records, such as medical history, will be opened for public discourse and scrutiny.
      • True

        But does that mean that search engines should be required to make embarassing, but supposedly no longer relevant details about one's past unfindable, as the court ruled in this case? We're talking about previously published news articles here, not something that was found by dumpster diving.
        John L. Ries
        • My response was specific to the comments from the poster that I

          responded to. I was not commenting broadly about the case where Google might have to remove links to information that is specific to any user.

          My comments pertain to the political aspect, where if a person decides to run for office, his/her records are fair game.

          When it comes to Google and a person's search history, I'm one that advocates that Google and other search engines, and even other content providers, have a means to cross-reference the user's search history for possible requests to remove.
  • Crazeeeeeeeeeeee

    Just imagine the work involved in verifying that each request is genuine, and assessing that the info is 'irrelevant' or not; Even Google will be bankrupt in 6 months, with every tinfoil-hatter, paedophile and bad-mouthed idiot demanding that history forget them.

    And not just Google; Bing and other second-tier engines will also have to obey.
  • This is a bad idea.

    Does this mean you can now tailor your search results? Go and find the unflattering and have reference removed making it almost impossible to find. It might have made more sense if this case revolved around information that was simply wrong instead of just inconvenient but only a bit.
    • If the data

      is PII then they have to get your permission before they can display it in their list of results... If the source site has your permission to publish the information in the first place, you probably don't mind Google listing it.

      This is more likely a problem when a website displays some personal information about you without your permission (newspapers and news agencies have some exceptions here). For example a credit ratings site accidentally displaying your credit history on a publicly available page. That would be illegal and by association Google would be acting illegally to publish that in a results list.

      Therefore you would contact the credit agency and Google and have them both remove that information immediately.
      • Looney Tunes!

        Where did you get that ridiculous idea? There's no law saying that a private company has to obtain permission from an individual before publishing information about that person! There are law regarding PHI (Personal HEALTH Information) and certain things like federal tax records and records ordered sealed by a court but those only apply to revealing information obtained directly from the IRS. If, for instance, some guy was preparing his resume and accidentally left the entire file where someone else could pick it up, there's no law saying the second person can't convert every document to PDF and post it on-line.
        • As the Data Protextion Officer

          I can assure you that we damned well do have to!

          Any business doing business in the European Union cannot publish or sell any personally identifiable information without first getting the permission of the person to whom that information pertains.

          That is why using cloud services with offices in the USA are pretty much impossible, because those companies have to hand over data to the US authorities without getting said permission and without getting a valid EU warrant.
          • Protection Officer!

            Doh! Give us an edit option!!
        • Credit bureaus should be subjected to those sorts of rules

          But I don't think a reasonable case can be made that publishers or search engines should be. If it shows up in the newspaper, it's part of the public record and should stay there unless it's judged to be libellous.

          The danger is that wealthy prominant individuals (the people who can most afford to hire lawyers) will use "right to be forgotten" laws to suppress negative publicity about themselves and their relations; and effectively censor history, accurate or not.
          John L. Ries
          • Noting...

            ...that credit reports are *not* available to the general public; but only to subscribers (who are barred from distributing them) who use them to make decisions about creditworthiness; and the subjects themselves (because at least in the USA, Big Bad Government made them).

            If it shows up in the newspaper, it's a matter of public knowledge and history.
            John L. Ries
  • BS ruling!

    now, evil companies like apple, M$ and Oracle can ask google to delete all their dirty deeds from the seach!
    people demand to know the truth!
    LlNUX Geek
    • This affects

      PII only - MS, Oracle and Apple aren't people.
  • It's a good ruling

    This give's people ownership of their own identity. I fully support it.

    It's not surprising that the UK is trying to secure an opt-out from this EU directive since they were the EU country in league with the NSA to spy on Germany and other EU "partners".

    If Google object so strongly they always have the option of withdrawing their products from EU states. Plenty of other entrepreneurs and companies will fill up the vacuum whilst complying with EU law.
    • No, it's a terrible ruling

      Court proceedings are a matter of public record. Public records are, you know, PUBLIC and ruling that isn't the case hurts everybody.

      It also requires search engines to POLICE PRIVATE WEB SITES! Do you understand that?
      • What absolute nonsense

        Court proceedings are NOT a matter of record in perpetuity for debt in many European states. Such records, even for bankruptcy, are expunged from official records including credit rating agencies after a set number of years (in the uk it is usually 7 years). There is no excuse for Google to tarnish this man's reputation for a debt from the late 90s.

        There's a lot of pompous nonsense in this discussion thread about "public record" but this man was not convicted of a serious criminal act. He had a small personal debt which was resolved a long time ago. This debt had no meaningful impact on anyone else and the continued regurgitating of this in Google's listing jeopardises his chances of employment or financing.

        I'm tired of Google acting as though it were some quasi sovereign state and completely support the EU Court. If they don't like it then they can pack up their cookies and doodles and leave the EU.
        • What I don't understand

 why the newspaper site isn't forced to remove the information. If that happened, the entire issue of what Google links to becomes moot.

          Why doesn't the law apply to the data's SOURCE (the newspaper's site), rather than what is really no more than an index (Google)?

          This seems backwards. It creates byzantine technical issues where none need exist.
        • Was Google claiming sovereignty?

          Or was it challenging the application of the law in the courts as it should if it thinks the law is being wrongly applied?
          John L. Ries
          • Was Google claiming sovereignty?

            I was referring to their ongoing history of arrogance and a sense that they feel they should be treated differently and play only by their rules.