The European Union’s high court ordered Google on Tuesday to remove certain search results because of privacy concerns. According to the ruling, the search engine must comply with user requests to take down links to personal information, even if the results are accurate. In other words, the European Court of Justice secured users their right to be "forgotten" on the Internet, if they so choose.
The case was brought by Mario Costeja González against Google Spain after González tried, unsuccessfully, to remove a 1998 auction notice from a newspaper website. He argued that the issue was resolved, and the notice should no longer appear in search results when he "googled" his name. The court agreed, saying Google must remove “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” search results if someone requests it.
The ruling confirms the "right to be forgotten" put forth in 2012 as part of a strict and sweeping set of European data privacy provisions. Mina Andreeva, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said the ruling is good news for European citizens and confirms the position laid out in the EU’s data protection rules: that Google is a data controller, not a processor. The court’s decision puts the legal burden on Google, not users, to prove whether data should be kept online.
Removing legal and accurate information from their results leaves holes in the data, the search engines argue. Google spokesman Al Verney called the court’s decision “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general.” The decision was especially surprising considering an opinion put forth by the EU advocate general last year, which said Google had no obligation to remove the links. Google cannot appeal the court’s decision, and the lower courts in each member country must determine how best to interpret the ruling.
Paul Bernal, a blogger and lecturer on intellectual property, media law and information technology, agrees the ruling pegs Google with a whole new set of problems. “For Google, this result creates a headache, and potentially huge costs,” he wrote. “It could open the door to a floodgate of actions, each of which will need resolution. Google will no longer be able to claim immunity.”
Some digital rights groups believe that by protecting privacy so fiercely, the ruling sacrifices basic tenets of the open Internet. Emma Carr, acting director of the British civil liberties group Big Brother Watch condemned the ruling in a statement. “The principle that you have a right to be forgotten is a laudable one, but it was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history," she said. "Search engines do not host information, and trying to get them to censor legal content from their results is the wrong approach.”
Wired UK deputy editor Olivia Solon went further and said the EU’s actions will promote dangerous Internet censorship of legal content. “It's not libelous, false or illegal. It's just not liked by the individual. This is censorship. There's no other way of putting it. Anyone with enough power, money and knowhow will be able to erase unsavory episodes in their lives from the web,” she said.
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