ECJ landmark ruling – EU citizens have right to be forgotten

Update, 19/05/2014. Google unlikely to face EU fines if it ignores ‘right to be forgotten’ verdict.

Brussels, 13 May 2014. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) today ruled that internet search engine operators are responsible for the processing of personal data from any webpages, and should respond to the legitimate requests of ordinary people to exercise their ‘right to be forgotten’.

The court’s decision is a reverse for companies like Google in Europe. In this case, Google’s Spanish subsidiary had appealed against an order by the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) that it must remove links to web pages published in 1998 by the newspaper La Vanguardia.

The ECJ judges ruled that companies can be expected to remove data results that are, “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed”. They noted in the process that the rights of people whose privacy has been infringed outweighed the general public interest.

Some leading euro-politicians welcomed the ruling. ALDE group leader and candidate for the European Commission presidency, Guy Verhofstadt, said, “This is a landmark ruling which backs my priority as candidate in putting in place privacy protection worthy of the 21st century”.

“In line with what we have been standing up for, the Court reinforces the right to be forgotten for ordinary users whose personal data are actually processed through the results provided by Google, without compromising general access to public information”.

ALDE spokesperson on data protection Sarah Ludford (LibDem, UK) said, “The court has backed the ‘right to erasure’ that MEPs made explicit in the proposed regulation updating EU data protection law. Coming hot on the heels of the court’s strikedown of the Data Retention Directive – which I am deeply proud our group opposed from the beginning – it is beyond doubt that the EU’s highest judicial authority stands squarely behind the European Parliament in strengthening EU privacy rights. It is now up to the 28 EU governments to respond ….”

However not everyone was so welcoming of the decision. Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, said, “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. Search engines do not host information and trying to get them to censor legal content from their results is the wrong approach. Information should be tackled at source, which in this case is a Spanish newspaper, otherwise we start getting into very dangerous territory.”

“The regulators should be doing more,” she continued, “to ensure that people have an informed choice over what data is collected about them by companies like Google. If we start to make intermediaries responsible for the actions of the content of other people, you’re establishing a model that leads to greater surveillance and a risk of censorship.”

Precise ruling from the ECJ’s press dept: