A long running legal battle came to a head recently when Google lost a major data protection case against a Spanish national in the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Until the conclusion of the case, it was widely believed that Google would win. The result has drawn significant attention to the privacy rights of individuals, in particular the ‘right to be forgotten’.
The importance of the outcome cannot be underestimated because it now places responsibility onto search engines for personal information that is available on the internet.
In response Google has already implemented a personal data removal procedure.
The Central Claim Against Google
The case originally arose from a complaint involving Spanish national, Mario Costeja about Google search results that appeared when his name was searched. The main issue was the appearance of a 15 year old legal notice published in a newspaper. Mr Costeja claimed that the notice referred to debts settled up to 15 years previously and that it had had a disproportionate effect on his present reputation.
Google refused to remove the result stating that its removal was not appropriate as the original publication of the legal notice in the newspaper was valid. Central to Google’s argument was the claim that it did not act as a controller of information but merely as a search facility for information held on third party pages.
Control of Data and the Right to be Forgotten
The EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, has been campaigning for greater protection of the personal data of Europeans, including for a right to be forgotten which is now a step closer. She commented, "The ruling confirms the need to bring today's data protection rules from the 'digital stone age' into today's modern computing world."
In legal terms it dramatically changes the position of firms such as Google that have established a commercial presence in an EU state. It treats them as a ‘data controller’ under EU legislation for the first time. Although Google claimed that it does not control data but only offers links to information that is already freely available, the ECJ considered its constant and systematic searching and processing did in fact make it a data controller.
Many commentators have claimed that this is a blow to free speech and represents a form of censorship. However, private individuals may feel relieved that they now have the opportunity to regain some control over their personal data. When it comes to censorship, Google and others will be able to rely on a public interest defence regarding people in public life.
There will be a cost attached to managing data removal requests but Google appears to be adapting rapidly to this change.