On May 13, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the highest court in Europe, ruled against Google in a landmark privacy case, asserting that EU citizens have a “right to be forgotten.” Let’s dive into the facts.
1. If requested, Google must remove ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant’ search results.
This case began in 2010 when a Spaniard named Mario Costeja González asked Google Spain to remove links in its search results that pointed to a 1998 newspaper article that detailed his social security debts. He claimed the debts had long been resolved, and the Google link to this outdated information had violated his data protection rights.
The case made its way through the legal system until it finally came before the ECJ. The Court ruled against Google, mandating that EU citizens have a say in what Google can reveal in search results.
This ruling, along with another landmark ECJ privacy case that threw out Europe’s data retention directive demonstrates that the EU is serious about protecting the data and privacy rights of its citizens.
2. Search engines, such as Google, are controllers of information.
The EU court determined that Google was more than simply a “processor” of information. With its sophisticated algorithms and ad targeting filters, Google is a “controller” of information. As a controller, it’s responsible for the links it provides in its search results, and Google should be compelled to remove them when they encroach on personal privacy.
3. The burden to erase search results is on Google.
The ECJ established that search engines like Google should allow users to be “forgotten” after a period of time by removing search links to web pages unless there is a “particular reason” to retain them.
In other words, users do not have to justify to Google why particular links about them should be removed. They simply need to “veto” the result. The burden is placed on Google to justify why a link “should not” be removed.
“I expect that the default action by search engines will be to take down information,” said Orla Lynskey, a lecturer in law at the London School of Economics.
4. The ruling mainly applies to searches about individuals.
This ruling is good news for young people who are growing up in the Facebook generation, where awkward teenage selfies or underage drinking photos may affect future college and job opportunities.
The flip side to this ruling is that those looking for an unbiased view of an individual may not be able to access public information about them through a search engine.
For example, many politicians have checkered pasts, and understanding who they are and what they may have done in their earlier life or career may affect how you vote. With this ruling in place, those politicians can hire companies to monitor and purge unsavory search results. The result could be considered a form of censorship for those who are writing about corrupt positions.
5. Google isn’t happy about the EU ruling.
In an email to CNN, a Google spokesman said the ECJ ruling was “disappointing,” and that the company needed time to “analyze the implications.”
The European Court of Justice is equivalent to the United States Supreme Court. Their ruling, which cannot be appealed, will apply to all 28 countries in the European Union. Its impact represents a significant cost to Google
What does this mean for the U.S. market?
While the U.S. has a heightened sense of privacy invasion as a result of last year’s NSA leaks by Edward Snowden, there is still a strong objection to anything that appears to be censorship.
Lee Rowlands, attorney for The American Civil Liberties Union, commented on the EU court ruling, “This result is incompatible with the right to free expression, and it would not be possible on American soil due to protections guaranteed under the First Amendment.”
While the war between privacy watchdogs and civil liberty advocates wages on in the U.S., we will wait to see how this ruling plays out in Europe. One way or another, this ruling in the EU will energize privacy groups in the U.S. who are hopeful that they too can secure similar rights in the States.