31 Jul 2014

Forget Me... Forget Me Not – The ‘Right to be Forgotten’ Case

Forget Me... Forget Me Not – The ‘Right to be Forgotten’ Case

Andrew Smith, Senior Solicitor, discusses the recent Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González outcome on the right to be forgotten.

Andrew Smith, Senior Solicitor, discusses the recent Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González outcome on the right to be forgotten.

Have you ever tried to Google yourself? A simple internet search can often find an incredible amount of information about a person. A lot of this information is positive information that most people wouldn’t mind sharing with the wider world such as local media reports on their graduation and marriage. However, sometimes this information is negative and recalls events that an individual would rather consign to the past.  The question is does a person have the right to hide this information from prying eyes in the internet era? 

The European Court of Justice said ‘Yes’ in the Google Spain Case. A Spanish individual sought to have historic announcements relating to an auction of his house to meet social security debts removed from Google search results against his name. It was ruled that individuals have what has been termed the “right to be forgotten”.  This means that internet search companies must, in certain circumstances, remove an individual’s personal data from their search results.

The right derives from the EU’s Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC (“DPD”). The European Court of Justice decided that the DPD obliges search engines in certain circumstances to delete personal data when an individual has objected to its content.  An objection can be raised if the information is inaccurate, irrelevant or excessive and therefore conflicts with an individual’s right to privacy. In deciding whether to delete personal data,  search engines must weigh up the interests of internet users in receiving and using information together with their own economic interests in providing search results against the rights of the individual to protect his personal data and to privacy. It was held however, that the general rule was that an individual’s rights will generally override the interests of other internet users and search engines. 

Forget Me

Google have been inundated with requests from individuals seeking to take advantage of this ruling. Within four days of Google’s Deletion Request Page going live 41,000 requests were received.   By ruling on Google searches, the largest of all search engines, the European Court of Justice has sent a message to all search engines that there must be good justification for the information they make available and that they don’t simply allow everything and anything to pass without any consideration of an individual’s privacy rights. Europe’s second most popular search engine, the Microsoft run Bing search engine, has recently taken steps to comply with the Court’s decision by allowing users to apply for deletion of information.

Forget Me Not

There was a recent interesting development in Google’s implementation of the Court’s ruling. BBC Economics Editor, Robert Peston, recently had links to a 2007 article about the bank Merrill Lynch removed. The office of the European Commission’s vice-president said that he could not see a “reasonable public interest” for the action.  It transpired that the reason for the removal was a request by someone who posted in the comment section of the article. The journalist was left with no obvious course of appeal.

The fear amongst journalists is that the “right to be forgotten” can be abused to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism. This particular example appears to be more a judgement error by Google in implementing the ruling rather than an assault on public-interest journalism but it highlights the complications that are likely to result from the Court’s decision. 

This ruling will almost certainly lead to further litigation. There are a number of questions that arise including; what exactly constitutes excessive information; when does information become irrelevant and whether search engines should remain essentially self-policing, deciding which information should and should not be removed. The “Right to be Forgotten” ruling is one case which search engines will need to remember. 

Andrew Smith, Solicitor


Please correct the errors below before submitting your request:

Get in touch

Our dedicated client contact team prefer to receive enquiries through our contact form. We'll endeavour to get back to you within 24 hours or during the course of the next working day.

Source of enquiry