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Do Individuals Have a ‘Right to be Forgotten’ by Search Engines?

Monday, 8 July 2013

The short answer is probably not.

According to an Opinion delivered by Advocate General Jääskinen at the European Court of Justice, internet search engine service providers such as Google are not to be regarded as controllers of information on third-party source web pages.

The opinion, which relates to a long-running complaint against Google, implies that Google and other search firms should not be responsible for removing information that appears in their searches.

The Complaint Against Google

The complaint involved the valid publication of a legal notice in a newspaper relating to the auction of property to satisfy the social security debts of Spanish national, Mario Costeja. This information displayed in Google search results whenever his name was entered into the search engine. Mr Costeja claimed that the debts had been settled up to 15 years earlier and argued that the information had a disproportionate effect on his current reputation given its age.

Google declined to erase the data from its database stating that its removal was not appropriate as the original publication of the legal notice in the newspaper was valid. The individual subsequently lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency and it was declared the data should be removed or the publication rectified.

Google appealed and certain questions were referred to the European Court of Justice for clarification.

The Opinion of the Advocate General

The Advocate General opined that Google is just a mere supplier of information location tools and does not exercise control over personal data on third-party websites or possess the power to change, amend or remove such information.

In line with the Data Protection Directive 95/46, a controller is the originator of the information and publisher of the source web pages and, as such, the person bound by all the obligations imposed on controllers.

Internet search providers process information already published by source websites. Where third-party websites want to exclude certain information, ‘exclusion codes’ may be used to prevent it from displaying in search and index results.

Google’s Argument Justifying the Display of Sensitive Information

The argument presented by Google referred to the wider societal need for displaying legitimate information. It argued that the public should not be prevented from learning about the crimes of public officers and other trusted agents for example and that legitimate information should not be censored to protect privacy.

Mr Costeja on the other hand raised issues bordering on the protection of the right to privacy and the ‘right to be forgotten’. The Advocate General reasoned that as much as individuals have the right to the protection of their personal data, there is also a right to freedom of expression which must be protected under EU law.


This is only an opinion of the Advocate General and it is not binding on the Court which is yet to finally decide the case. In the event it is adopted in the judgement, primary liability for legitimate information displayed in search engine results will lie with originators rather than search providers. With one less avenue for removing information, a difficult task will be made even harder.

For more information about this case or advice about protecting your reputation online, Rollingsons has experienced lawyers who can assist you. For more information please contact James Crichton via e-mail or by telephone on 0207 611 4848.