Sometimes Internet privacy and freedom of information can come into bitter conflict with each other and that appears to be the outcome of a new ruling against Google by the European Union’s Court of Justice (ECJ). The outcome could lay the groundwork for everybody to have a “right to be forgotten” online.
The case itself occurred after a Spanish man (Mario Costeja González) complained that the detail of an auction notice for his former home, which was repossessed after he failed to pay his taxes, appeared in Google’s search results.
The notice itself was made public on the third-party website (twice via a newspaper called La Vanguardia) and Mr González wanted the source material edited and the Google result removed because the proceedings concerning him had been fully resolved for a number of years, thus he felt as though the reference to them was now “entirely irrelevant“.
Mercifully the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) rejected the complaint against La Vanguardia, which correctly ruled that the information in question had been lawfully published by it. But the AEPD then ruled that Google should still delete the related references to the page, which Google perhaps understandably viewed as unfair because the information was already in the public domain, and so began the court battle until today’s ECJ verdict.
“An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties.
Thus, if, following a search made on the basis of a person’s name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results.”
As a result Google (plus other search engines) now find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, faced with the unenviable task of having to either figure out some way of automatically filtering out results that include links to websites which contain information on the person being searched (sounds like a technical and administrative nightmare) or capitulating to a colossal amount of new requests for individual data removals. “This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general,” said Google.
One small caveat is that the ruling suggests that Internet search engines should still take account of the individuals role in public life, which is another way of saying that personal name searches for politicians and celebrities won’t be impacted by this ruling (people whom are very much in the public eye / public interest). Ironically the case is now so public that Mario Costeja González’s original goal, of getting his past situation erased, appears to have been lost.
The European Commission has already proposed a similar “right to be forgotten” policy as part of their plans to overhaul the controversial data-protection rules, which could be finalised by the end of 2014. But hopefully the EC’s final legislation will be balanced against the very real need to reserve accurate historical records and freedom of information. Penalising search engines for being search engines might not be the best solution.