In a landmark ruling that would limit how long personal data can be discovered on the Internet, Europe’s top court has ruled that privacy rights generally trump the right to access legal information.
The European Court of Justice, the continent’s highest judicial body, ruled on Tuesday that individuals have the right to demand that Google Inc. remove some information from its results when a search is performed on a person’s name. The ruling centres on a concept the court calls “the right to be forgotten” – in other words, an individual’s right to ensure their digital fingerprint reflects the person they are, rather than who they used to be.
The case stems from a legal complaint filed four years ago by Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish citizen who complained that when people searched for his name on Google, the site returned links to newspaper stories about Mr. Gonzalez’s house, which was being auctioned to settle his social security debts.
None of the content presented by Google was illegal, but Europe’s top court nonetheless ruled that a user can demand the search engine remove them, so as to not violate their privacy rights. “Those rights override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in finding that information upon a search relating to the data subject’s name,” the court said in its ruling.
The decision, which cannot be appealed to a higher court, has potentially significant repercussions not only for Google, but for many of the large websites that act as portals to billions of Web pages.
For years, Google and others have relied on the fact that they don’t create the content they link to on their search listings – saying, in effect, that a dispute over offensive content is between the person who created it and the person who was offended. In addition, the companies have relied on freedom of speech as a protection from the threat of being forced to remove legal content that some may find objectionable.
The European court ruling, which applies only within the continent, rejects those arguments. The court cited certain cases where the data appeared “to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to those purposes and in the light of the time that has elapsed.”
“I think this changes fundamentally our ability to use the Internet and its accumulated resources as a historical record,” said Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank. “What the ruling does is essentially give people a right of veto over the Internet’s ability to keep facts on the record.”
How the ruling will be enforced is uncertain. Companies may decline to set up an internal bureaucracy to judge the merit of every request, Mr. Crowley said – instead, they may simply acquiesce to all requests to avoid protracted battles with government and privacy regulators.
Officially, Google has only said that it finds the ruling “disappointing,” given that the European court essentially went against the advice of its own advocate general. Speaking on background, a person familiar with the matter said the company sees the ruling as “a massive blow for freedom of expression,” which will likely affect other tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter.
In Canada, there is no strict legal “right to be forgotten,” federal privacy commissioner spokesperson Tobi Cohen said. However individuals do have a right to withdraw their consent to the collection, use and disclosure of personal information – subject to legal or contractual restrictions.
“In the past, our office has found that, for example, social media sites should provide users with the ability to have their account information deleted if they decide to leave the site,” Ms. Cohen said.
However the European court’s ruling appears to take a much wider view of personal information – indeed, the subject of the original complaint was a digital copy of a proceeding notice originally published in a Spanish newspaper.
“The ability to re-write history is troubling,” University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist said. “There is always a balance to be struck between different rights … but it seems to me that the European court gets the balance wrong with this decision.”
It will likely be several months before the court’s ruling has any practical effect on Google’s European search operations. In the meantime, a host of sites will have to grapple with the concept of the right to be forgotten, and how to balance that right with the Internet’s function as a repository of the world’s information.
“There’s no justification for trying to expunge facts from the Internet,” Mr. Crowley said. “You have to draw a line between things like libel … and things that are just unpleasant truths.”