The European Court of Justice struck a major blow against the right of internet companies to hold unlimited information on individuals when it ordered Google to remove links that are deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”.
The court’s decision will allow individuals the right to ask internet search engines to remove links to information about them that they do not want known – which could be seen either as an assertion of the right to privacy or an attack on free speech.
Google and free speech activists reacted angrily to the court’s verdict which could guarantee individuals a “right to be forgotten” on the internet which is not currently available.
It is unclear exactly how the ruling will be implemented considering the sheer volume of online data and internet users. For individuals keen to erase embarrassing incidents from their past, it could prove a handy tool for re-shaping their digital footprint, while data protection advocates are calling it a victory against the all-powerful internet giants.
But for champions of free speech, the potential for misuse is deeply worrying.
“This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books,” said Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship. “Although the ruling is intended for private individuals, it opens the door to anyone who wants to whitewash their personal history.”
It was a repossessed home in Catalonia which sparked the battle between privacy campaigners, search engines such as Google and free speech advocates. Mario Costeja Gonzalez was dismayed to find searches on his name still threw up a 1998 newspaper article on past financial problems, even though many years had passed and his debts were paid off.
A Spanish court referred his request for the link to be removed to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, which ruled in favour of Mr Costeja. The judges decided that search engines did have a duty to make sure that data deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” did not appear. Ordinary citizens could also request that search engines remove links to sites which contained excessive personal data on them.
Google had argued that it was not in control of the content – it was merely linking to it – and therefore the onus for removing any out-of-date information was on the websites themselves.
“We are very surprised that [this decision] differs so dramatically from the Advocate General’s opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications,” said a Google spokesman, Al Verney. He was referring to an opinion issued an adviser to the European Court of Justice last year expressing concern that freedom of speech could be threatened.
This clash between the right to privacy and the right to information is an ongoing one in Europe. In 2012, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, proposed a law granting people the right to be forgotten on the internet. The European Parliament however watered it down, and internet companies have been lobbying member states not to approve the legislation.
They have an ally in the free speech groups, which argue that giving an individual the right to decide what can be removed from search engines with no legal oversight has worrying implications.
“The court’s decision is a retrograde move that misunderstands the role and responsibility of search engines and the wider internet,” said Ms Ginsberg. “It should send chills down the spine of everyone in the European Union who believes in the crucial importance of free expression and freedom of information.”
Javier Ruiz, Policy Director at Open Rights Group, agreed. “We need to take into account individuals’ right to privacy, but if search engines are forced to remove links to legitimate content that is already in the public domain... it could lead to online censorship,” he said.
But the battle lines are not entirely clear. People are increasingly concerned about the safety of their personal data since allegations emerged last year of mass government surveillance. The EU’s Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, called the ruling a “strong tailwind” in the commission’s efforts to tighten data protection in the bloc. “Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world,” she wrote on Facebook.
It is now up to legal experts with search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing to work out how they can possibly implement the law, and what processes will be put in place to allow people to appeal against the links,. For the man who started it all, he is pleased that his case has created an opening for ordinary people to stand up to the often faceless Internet giants. “It’s a great relief to be shown that you were right when you have fought for your ideas, it’s a joy,” Mr Costeja told the Associated Press.