EU Court Rules Google Must Give Individuals “Right To Be Forgotten” (Or Not To Be Found)

TechCrunch contributor Andrew Keen has long argued the “Internet needs to learn to forget“, but I’m not sure this latest EU ruling is quite what he had in mind.

The European Court Of Justice has ruled that Google must respect the “right to be forgotten” and, at the request of private individuals, remove “irrelevant” and outdated information that contravenes an EU privacy directive concerning the way personal data is processed.

Naturally, Google is said to be “furious” and disappointed by the court’s decision.

The landmark case involves a Spanish national who, as far back as 2010, lodged a complaint with Spain’s data protection agency, arguing that a national newspaper and Google were infringing his right to privacy.

Specifically, when entering his name into the search engine, the list of results would display links to two pages of La Vanguardia’s newspaper containing an announcement for a real-estate auction organised for his repossessed home.

He argued, successfully, that since the matter had been resolved, its digital footprint should be erased by both the publisher in question and by Google removing links to the offending pages from its search index. The EU court seems to agree.

On the latter point, it says:

…the Court of Justice finds, first of all, that by searching automatically, constantly and systematically for information published on the internet, the operator of a search engine ‘collects’ data within the meaning of the directive.

Furthermore — and most striking — the court says:

…the operator is, in certain circumstances, obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name. The Court makes it clear that such an obligation may also exist in a case where that name or information is not erased beforehand or simultaneously from those web pages, and even, as the case may be, when its publication in itself on those pages is lawful.

In other words, the EU, for all intents and purposes, regards Google on par with (or more responsible than) the original publisher of potentially privacy offending data and says it can be made to remove content from its index even if it has been legally published by the originating site.

This isn’t so much the “right to be forgotten” as the “right not to be found”.

It’s no wonder the U.S. search giant is unhappy.

Whatever your position on online privacy and whether or not an individual having the right to request certain personal information be removed amounts to censorship, it’s hard not to argue it’s the originating source that should be targeted, not an “agnostic” search engine.

Making Google — and its search engine ilk — responsible for the content it indexes is a slippery slope to say the least and could have multiple ramifications around the censorship of all sorts of “data”. (Safe harbour, anyone?)

Instead, what should probably happen is that Google’s spiders simply respect information that has been removed or de-indexed by the originating source online, following a privacy offence under EU law.

That said, this does get awfully complex when you consider things like Google cache, or noble projects like Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, regardless of where you sit in the debate between right to privacy and freedom of speech.

However this eventually shakes out — the EU has been pushing hard to legislate specifically on the issue — the “right to be forgotten” is certainly going to be messy.

Perhaps the Internet should have learned to forget in the first place.