The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that Google and other search engines must delete search results at people's request in some cases, and it's up to the search engines to determine when to comply. If an agreement can't be reached between the search engine and the person requesting the deletion of information, then they'll have to go to court to sort it out.
Some people have wanted to be able to have information about themselves removed from Google for years, and this is a major development in that storyline. On the other side of the coin, some would say that being forced to get rid of info about people just because they don't like it amounts to censorship. That's Google's argument.
What do you think? Should Google have to remove search results about people at their request? Share your opinion in the comments.
This particular case involves Spanish man Mario Costeja, who complained of an auction notice of his repossessed home, which is now resolved, continuing to show up in Google search results, infringing upon his privacy. There are at least 180 more similar cases in Spain alone, where people want Google to get rid of search results for one reason or another.
The issue is certainly not limited to Spain. There are people all over the world, who would love to see certain pieces of information about themselves disappear from Google's search results. People charged with crimes, but acquitted, for example, don't want stories about their arrests showing up in Google results for their names (not that those who weren't acquitted do either).
It's not that Google doesn't care about this stuff at all. Last year, they launched an algorithm update to demote shady mugshot sites that show people's mugshots, and make them pay for removal.
Google hasn't written about this latest ruling yet, but, Google's Head of Free Expression William Echikson wrote in February of last year, after declining to comply with an order for the Spanish Data Protection Authority:
We were asked to remove links from our search results that point to a legal notice published in a newspaper. The notice, announcing houses being auctioned off as part of a legal proceeding, is required under Spanish law and includes factually correct information that is still publicly available on the newspaper’s website.
There are clear societal reasons why this kind of information should be publicly available. People shouldn't be prevented from learning that a politician was convicted of taking a bribe, or that a doctor was convicted of malpractice. The substantive question before the Court today is whether search engines should be obliged to remove links to valid legal material that still exists online.
We believe the answer to that question is "no". Search engines point to information that is published online - and in this case to information that had to be made public, by law. In our view, only the original publisher can take the the decision to remove such content. Once removed from the source webpage, content will disappear from a search engine's index.
Of course, there will also be times when information is published online that is subsequently found by a court to be incorrect, defamatory or otherwise illegal. Such content can be removed from the source website and from search engines. But search engines should not be subject to censorship of legitimate content for the sake of privacy - or for any other reason.
I don't imagine their stance has changed much since then.
The AP did get a statement from Google spokesman Al Verney, who called the ruling "disappointing ... for search engines and online publishers in general," and said Google will "now need to take time to analyze the implications."
The ruling says that Google and other search engines have to weigh "the legitimate interest of Internet users potentially interested in having access to that information" against the privacy implications of what is being requested for removal. If the search engine doesn't want to remove something, but the person wants to fight it, they may need to go to a local judge or regulator.
"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," says a press release from the court. "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."
More from the document:
So far as concerns, next, the extent of the responsibility of the operator of the search engine, the Court holds that the operator is, in certain circumstances, obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name. The Court makes it clear that such an obligation may also exist in a case where that name or information is not erased beforehand or simultaneously from those web pages, and even, as the case may be, when its publication in itself on those pages is lawful.
The Court points out in this context that processing of personal data carried out by such an operator enables any internet user, when he makes a search on the basis of an individual’s name, to obtain, through the list of results, a structured overview of the information relating to that individual on the internet. The Court observes, furthermore, that this information potentially concerns a vast number of aspects of his private life and that, without the search engine, the information could not have been interconnected or could have been only with great difficulty. Internet users may thereby establish a more or less detailed profile of the person searched against. Furthermore, the effect of the interference with the person’s rights is heightened on account of the important role played by the internet and search engines in modern society, which render the information contained in such lists of results ubiquitous. In the light of its potential seriousness, such interference cannot, according to the Court, be justified by merely the economic interest which the operator of the engine has in the data processing.
However, inasmuch as the removal of links from the list of results could, depending on the information at issue, have effects upon the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information, the Court holds that a fair balance should be sought in particular between that interest and the data subject’s fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data. The Court observes in this regard that, whilst it is true that the data subject’s rights also override, as a general rule, that interest of internet users, this balance may however depend, in specific cases, on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary, in particular, according to the role played by the data subject in public life.
Finally, in response to the question whether the directive enables the data subject to request that links to web pages be removed from such a list of results on the grounds that he wishes the information appearing on those pages relating to him personally to be ‘forgotten’ after a certain time, the Court holds that, 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 erased. The Court observes in this regard that even initially lawful processing of accurate data may, in the course of time, become incompatible with the 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. The Court adds that, when appraising such a request made by the data subject in order to oppose the processing carried out by the operator of a search engine, it should in particular be examined whether the data subject has a right that the information in question relating to him personally should, at this point in time, no longer be linked to his name by a list of results that is displayed following a search made on the basis of his name. 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 Court points out that the data subject may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine (the controller) which must then duly examine its merits. Where the controller does not grant the request, the data subject may bring the matter before the supervisory authority or the judicial authority so that it carries out the necessary checks and orders the controller to take specific measures accordingly.
Google has been fighting this battle with other parties throughout Europe for some time. The big story last year was about former Formula One Racing head Max Mosley, who allegedly attended an orgy, which came in a leaked video in 2008. He's been fighting Google in court to have results about that removed.
Google also blogged about that in September with a post called "Fighting against a censorship machine."
"We sympathize with Mr. Mosley, and with anyone who believes their rights have been violated," wrote Google Associate General Counsel Daphne Keller. "We offer well-established tools to help people to remove specific pages from our search results when those pages have clearly been determined to violate the law. In fact, we have removed hundreds of pages for Mr. Mosley, and stand ready to remove others he identifies."
"But the law does not support Mr. Mosley’s demand for the construction of an unprecedented new Internet censorship tool," she added. "In repeated rulings, Europe’s highest court has noted that filters are blunt instruments that jeopardise lawful expression and undermine users’ fundamental right to access information. A set of words or images may break the law in one context, but be lawful in another. As an example, a filter might end up censoring news reports about Mr. Mosley’s own court case."
Mosley may be happy to see the latest ruling in Spain, though it doesn't mean he'd ultimately get the content removed as he wants. It would likely just mean more time in courtrooms - something the ruling is probably going to mean a whole lot more of for Google itself.
It will be interesting to see how high the numbers of complaints jump up after the ruling. It's unclear what impact the ruling will have on Google's policy in Spain or the rest of the world. To be continued...
What do you make of the ruling? Is this a win for privacy and online reputation management or is it a dangerous precedent opening up a huge can of worms? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Image via Google