Google's Schmidt says Europe's 'right to be forgotten' ruling got it wrong

Did Europe's highest court strike the wrong balance between the right to know and the right to be forgotten? Google's Eric Schmidt thinks so.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

According to Google chairman Eric Schmidt, Europe's Court of Justice struck the wrong balance with a recent ruling that people can request that the company remove links to outdated material about them from its search results.

Fielding a question at Google's annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, Schmidt outlined his thoughts on this week's European ruling that could see it forced to stop providing links to some information published on the web.

According to Schmidt, the case involved "a collision between the right to be forgotten and the right to know".

"From Google's perspective that's a balance… You have to find a balance. Google believes, having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong," said Schmidt, adding that there were many questions over the ruling. 

Google's chief legal counsel David Drummond said that the decision was "disappointing".

"We think it went too far. It didn't consider adequately the impact on free expression," Drummond said, adding that the company is still studying the implications of the ruling.

The European Court of Justice's decision is likely to complicate compliance with Europe's data protection directive for search engines since, according to the ruling, "lawful processing of accurate data may, in the course of time, become incompatible with the directive".

The ruling came as part of case involving a transaction to settle a Spanish man's social security debts. A search for his name produced links to two newspaper articles about the matter published in 1998. The court ruled that links to such information can become irrelevant over time, and since Google was the data controller of the search results, it can be subject to an order to remove links to the information under the European data protection directive — even when the information it links to is accurate and available on the web.

Experts are divided over whether the ruling will be difficult for companies such as Google to comply with.

Ovum analyst Luca Schiovani said the ruling may be "very disruptive" to search engines and ultimately shouldn't apply to them since they're only secondary data controllers.

"These provisions should only apply to the direct controllers of personal data — for example, a social network complying with the request to fully delete information related to an account. Involving search engines for something they are not directly responsible for is likely to entail a burdensome cost, especially if the amount of requests of erasure should escalate in the future," Schiovani said.

However, Victor Mayer-Schönberge, a professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, told the Financial Times that the ruling would only result in Google having to remove a "few dozen" more links on top of the bulk removals it performs as a result of copyright removal requests.

Still, as the court noted, companies such as Google will no longer be able to brush aside requests by people to remove links to material about them that may now be considered irrelevant.

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