Europe’s highest court ruled on May 13th that when it comes to search engine results, people have the “right to be forgotten”. Essentially, private individuals have the right to request for links to be removed from search results if they point to outdated and/or irrelevant information.
This stems from a Spanish man’s complaint to Spain’s data protection agency that a Google search of his name brought up a link to a newspaper article from 1998 about the repossession of his home to repay debts, which he had long since settled. He claimed this violated his right to privacy.
Understandably, there are plenty of people speaking up both in favour and against the ruling. The court argued that the responsibility lies with Google and other search engines because the service they provide makes information readily available that would otherwise be difficult to find. The EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, supported the court’s decision in a Facebook post, saying it was a “clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans”.
On the flipside, Google argues that it doesn’t control personal data, it just offers links to information already freely and legally available online. Campaign group Index on Censorship also has spoken out against the decision, saying it “violates the fundamental principles of freedom of expression”. “It allows individuals to complain to search engines about information they do not like with no legal oversight,” it said.
What does this mean for Europe in the short term?
Nothing yet. There are many hoops still to jump through and wrinkles to iron out before any action can actually be taken one way or another. For instance:
- What precisely constitutes ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive’ information and who is going to decide that?
- Practically speaking, how would it be implemented, policed, and enforced?
- What about people who would abuse it to gloss over egregious past actions?
What does this mean for the US?
The ruling itself only applies to European countries. It does, however, affect US companies which have offices in European countries, but as to if this ruling might prompt similar legislation in the US, it’s doubtful. Lee Rowland, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney specializing in privacy and technology issues, said a similar ruling in the U.S. is highly unlikely “because the First Amendment provides robust protections for the printing and reporting of publicly available information.” The ACLU is no stranger to the ‘right to be forgotten’ subject matter as it published an article in 2010 on the “right to delete”, which argues that an individual should have the “right to delete information about her that is held by others.”
While the notion of being able to remove links to outdated and irrelevant content in search results is positive on its face, the onus is being put on the wrong party. From a practical standpoint, responsibility should lie with the individual, with a resolution being sought between the individual and the content publisher in question. The future is only going to bring faster access to information from public records and introduce new, non-search-engine tools with which to retrieve it. Removing links from search results doesn’t change the fact that the content is still available online and if someone wants to find the
information badly enough, it won’t stay hidden. The ruling is powerful and significant in that it clearly establishes the position of the European high court as a protector of the privacy rights of individuals. That said, the issue is still complicated and as such, the nuances present will make it hard to clearly define the enforceable law. Expect this to take time before it will make any real impact within Europe.
Where do we go from here?
This is a case of ‘wait and see’. The full implications can’t be defined yet because so many of the details are still uncertain. Individuals should continue to manage their reputations online following best practices – own as much of the first page of search results as possible through positive, quality content on owned websites and social properties.
This post was compiled by Adam Westin, Craig Kronenberger and Martin Oddy.
Image credit: bloomsberries