One year after the European Union’s top court ruled that people had the “right to be forgotten” online, officials and search engines such as Google are still in dispute over action to be taken.
On 13 May 2014 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that search engines must remove information considered “inaccurate, inadequate or excessive” used in data processing or face a fine.
The ground-breaking decision came after a Spanish citizen took Google to the ECJ because he wanted a newspaper article about his insolvency to be “forgotten” by Google and no longer listed on their search engine.
Under European data protection laws, Google had to set up a detailed process to comply, removing hundreds of thousands of links. Since then, Google claims to have processed 253,617 requests to remove 920,258 links.
However, the search giant has still only approved approximately 40 per cent of those requests, logging 32,076 requests to remove 126,571 links in the UK alone, out of which only 37.5 per cent were approved.
Other search engines like Yahoo and Bing were not exempt from ECJ’s ruling, also having to remove links in search results, but the controversy over the issue continues to simmer over how the European right should be applied.
The crux of the matter is whether Google should be forced to remove links it has agreed to take down in Europe on its web sites elsewhere in the world. Google executives want to have the links removed from Google.es (Spain) or Google.de (Germany) for example, but not from google.com.
EU officials, on the other hand, are saying that despite Google’s best efforts to comply with its ruling, the company is undermining the decision by not applying it worldwide.
In February, an advisory group appointed by Google has backed the company’s view that links be removed only from web sites in Europe, but one member, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former German justice minister, disagreed, saying that de-listing search results should be global.
“Since EU residents are able to research globally, the EU is authorised to decide that the search engine has to delete all links globally,” she wrote in the report.
According to Dina Shiloh, a solicitor at Mishcon de Reya who specialises in media law, the decision last May demonstrated that Europeans have the right to control their own data and how it is processed.
“The decision showed that in Europe, privacy is not dead. Google can no longer argue that it is a neutral 'wall' with no responsibility to the content it links to,” she said.
However, Shiloh said that the situation is far from simple. Even if removal requests are granted, those same articles are still available online, on the sites where they were originally published.
“The 'right to be forgotten' is not absolute,” she said. “It has to be balanced against other fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and of the media.”
“We are still struggling to define those terms,” Shiloh said. “In addition, anyone in the public eye may find it difficult to argue information about them is irrelevant – again, 'the public eye' is not an easy thing to define.”