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European Court Grants the Right to Be Forgotten

An individual can force search engine providers to modify results

2 min read

European Court Grants the Right to Be Forgotten
Illustration: Randi Klett; Photo: iStockphoto.

Mario Costeja Gonzalez's Google search results will change, thanks to a ruling today by the Court of Justice of the European Union, in Luxembourg. Costeja sought to force Google to stop linking to a newspaper announcement of a government auction of seized property of his. But even if he had not won his case Costeja's name would already return an avalanche of results related to a controversial battle in Europe over the so-called right to be forgotten. Around 200 court cases in Spain are pending this ruling, and more are sure to emerge here and across the European Union, where the ruling applies.

Costeja's battle dates to 2009, when the newspaper La Vanguardia digitized its archive, unintentionally reviving a chapter of Costeja's life he thought was resolved. The archive included a 19 January 1998 official announcement of government-seized properties on auction to settle Social Security debts, and a related March 1998 announcement.

"It was a professional problem," Costeja said, according to an Argentine newspaper, "I had to give explanations: this was a personal thing, that I had been married and that now the debt is paid." In 2010 Costeja approached La Vanguardia and Spain's Data Protection Agency (AEPD, in Spanish) about taking down the notice. The agency found that it could not force the newspaper to remove the notice, whose publication it found legitimate and legal, but advised Costeja that he might have the right to ask Google not to link to the notice. It referred the case, together with related questions, to the Court of Justice.

Today's decision differs with a 2013 opinion from a European Union advocate general that appeared to defend Google's right to link to third-party material.  The new ruling finds that since Google processes data, including personal data such as names, the data is subject to the European Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data. The court declared that as a result, in some circumstances individuals may request the removal of their personal data from Google's, or other data processor's, databases.

Screenshot: Google
Search results today in Spain from Google's Spanish website reflected Costeja's new claim to fame.

If the ruling sets a wider precedent, it could require search engine providers to establish systems for handling requests from individuals, mediation through national data protection agencies, and the possibility of more court cases. Yet on his personal blog in 2011, a Google lawyer wrote that the AEPD could dodge the entire problem by ordering newspapers and others to edit their robots.txt to exclude contested pages from automatic indices such as Google's. The agency had already done so in another case. Other web publishers already limit the ability of automatic web indexes to see and summarize content.

The European Union is also finalizing wider rules that would make European citizens' right to online privacy more explicit. They will need to find a way to balance individual's desires for privacy with the public's interest, something the ruling acknowledges: "this balance may however depend, in specific cases, on the nature of the information in question…[and] the role played by the data subject in public life."

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