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15th Feb 2019

Google must respect 'right to be forgotten', rules EU court

  • Google must remove the names of ordinary people from their search-results on request, the EU's top court has ruled (Photo: Carlos Luna)

Google must remove information about ordinary people from their search results if requested by the individuals concerned, the EU's top court has ruled.

People have the right to request information be removed from search engine results if it appeared to be "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant", the European Court of Justice (ECJ) stated in a judgement on Tuesday (13 May).

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The decision was quickly welcomed by EU Justice commissioner Viviane Reding as "a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans."

The case rested on a complaint by Spaniard Mario Costeja González that search results for his name on Google brought up links to Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia from 1998 including an announcement about social security debts he owed.

Costeja Gonzalez argued that the issue had long been settled and that the information was now irrelevant. In response, the Spanish data protection agency ordered Google to remove the data from their index, a position upheld by the Luxembourg-based Court.

"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 stated. It added that "if it is found, following a request by the data subject, that the inclusion of those links in the list is... incompatible with the directive, the links and information in the list of results must be erased."

"Even initially lawful processing of accurate data may, in the course of time, become incompatible with the directive where… the data appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive."

The Court ruling appears to prove that 'a right to be forgotten' exists in EU law, a principle which EU lawmakers have been working on as part of plans to re-write the EU's data protection rules tabled by Reding in 2012.

Despite spending the last two years negotiating the reforms, which would update legislation agreed in 1995, government ministers and MEPs remain deadlocked on the reforms and there is little prospect of the legislation being agreed by the time Reding's term in office comes to an end in September.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday (13 May), Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva, welcomed the Court ruling but said that it demonstrated the need to press ahead with the new rules.

"The court ruling refers to rules which date back to 1995 - the pre-Internet age - and we need to clarify how the right to be forgotten applies in the online world," she said. "At the moment the consumer is responsible for providing the burden of proof that the data is unnecessary."

Google described the ruling as "disappointing", while the freedom of information campaign group, Index on Censorship, complained that the Court's decision would allow individuals to "complain to search engines about information they do not like with no legal oversight," describing this is "akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books."

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