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Summary:

A “right to be forgotten” ruling has surprised lawyers and the tech industry, and alarmed the media. Here’s a Q&A to what it means, and a guide to further coverage.

Europe’s highest court this week ruled that a Spanish man can force Google to remove a search result that contained financial information he thought was embarrassing. The surprise ruling, which has alarmed free speech advocates, has big implications for tech companies like Google and Facebook, and could fundamentally change how people use the internet in Europe.

Here’s an explanation of what the ruling actually does, what the press is saying and where to learn more.

Who is this Spanish man and what can he remove from Google?

Mario Costeja is a 59-year-old lawyer who sought to remove a Google link to a 1998 news article about an auction, which mentioned that Costeja had to sell his house to pay outstanding debts. The European Court of Justice’s decision means that the news article will remain online but that it will no longer turn up in some Google searches.

Where does the ruling apply and when will it go into effect?

The ruling applies across the European Union, but will have to be implemented by courts and law-makers on a country-by-country basis. In the case of Mr. Costeja, he will go back to a Spanish court to ask for an order consistent with the ECJ decision — one that will presumably require Google to remove the search listing.

The exact scope of the ruling is still to be determined: will Google have to purge the listing from Google.es or Google.com too? Will future court rulings apply only to searches conducted within Europe or abroad too? These questions will take years to resolve.

What does it mean for the average person?

As the Wall Street Journal notes, more than 200 people in Spain alone were already petitioning the country’s data-protection regulator to force Google to remove listings they dislike. In the wake of the ruling, many more people across Europe are likely to line up with similar demands aimed at not just Google, but at Facebook and Twitter and other sites that contain links, old photos, news items or other potentially embarrassing information.

Are there any limits on what people can take down?

Yes, the ruling suggests a request for removal must concern a link that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purpose for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.” Courts and regulators will also have to balance the person’s desire for privacy against the “interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary, in particular, according to the role played by the data subject in public life.”

What does this mean for Google and other tech companies?

The ruling says Google is now considered a “data controller” and no longer a simple intermediary; it is now accountable for search listings even though it has nothing to do with the underlying content. This represents a fundamental shift in long-established principles of internet law, and presents a potentially enormous technological and regulatory headache for Google and other tech companies.

To respond to what could be millions of new legal demands, Google may attempt to create something akin an automated takedown system such as what exists for copyright and, in doing so, try to strike a balance between free expression and compliance with the law. Or Google and other companies may consider removing some or all or their services altogether.

Can Google appeal or change the law?

The ECJ is Europe’s highest court so Google can’t appeal this week’s ruling. The ruling, however, applied to 20-year-old legislation that the European Parliament is currently in the process of revising; the tech industry could lobby to have the proposed new law soften the impact of the court ruling. (That may be unlikely given other legal developments).

What has been the reaction to the ruling?

Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic published editorials warning that the court ruling threatens the integrity of the internet and free expression. Here is an excerpt from the Financial Times:

The right to be forgotten must not become the right of the powerful to airbrush the past …  the problem with the ECJ judgment is that it will create legal uncertainty and expose internet companies to disproportionate compliance costs and creeping censorship. All told, this risks undermining the worldwide web as a global commons.

And here is the New York Times:

Such a purge would leave Europeans less well informed and make it harder for journalists and dissidents to have their voices heard … The desire to allow individuals to erase data that they no longer wish to disclose is understandable. For example, there are good reasons to let people remove embarrassing photos and posts they published on social media as children or young adults. But lawmakers should not create a right so powerful that it could limit press freedoms or allow individuals to demand that lawful information in a news archive be hidden.

Google, of course, is not pleased with the ruling. According to a spokesperson: “This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general.”

The Computer & Communications Industry Association, an umbrella group for the tech industry, wrote: “This ruling opens the door to large scale private censorship in Europe.”

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had a very different take, however, writing in a triumphant Facebook post: “Today’s Court Judgement is a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans ! … Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world.”

Where can I learn more about all this?

The legal intricacies of the ruling (PDF here) are tricky, especially for North Americans unfamiliar with the byzantine workings of the EU. The FT has so far produced the clearest and most detailed coverage (registration required), including:

Other helpful coverage includes:

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  1. Why shouldn’t individuals be able to remove search results? The RIAA and MPAA already have the right to remove google links with impunity. Why is it suddenly a problem now that the little guy has access to this process?

    Google argues it isn’t feasible to remove a nazi orgy video of Max Mosley from its listings in court, but if that video had underage girls in it, Google would comply immediately. That smacks of dishonesty. They have the tech to do this, they simply are defending their exploitative business model.

    Individuals are not property of Google Inc. We have rights too.

    1. Jeff John Roberts guest Wednesday, May 14, 2014

      Thanks for the comment — I agree it’s odd that the entertainment industry can easily remove a content link, but that a person can’t have the same control over something that affects their lives

      But the fact remains that Google isn’t making the content; it’s simply providing a way to find it. It’s like a phone directory in that sense — and the court decision, if abused, provides too easy a way for people to rip out pages from that directory.

      Don’t you think there’s a risk the harm will outweigh the good if we let people take down search results they don’t like?

      1. Equifax and Transunion index personal information about people too. When that information is wrong they are legally required to fix it. When that information is out of date, they are legally required to drop it.

        Why should Google have some special exemption where it is allowed to do whatever it pleases, causing personal harm to anyone, to generate its billions in profits?

        1. Google links to information published by others; it doesn’t publish. So it’s entirely different. As you should have realized before posting something so ignominious.

          1. Must suck to be you since the EU’s highest court disagrees.

            1. Being in power and being “right” are two separate things. G.W. Bush invaded Iraq because he had the power to, not because he was right.

            2. Carol Cobillard bob Friday, May 23, 2014

              But the ECJ’s judgments and EU law are largely unenforceable in that great tax-evasion centre and free-to-libel haven … the “exceptionalist” USA. We’ll all just use USA VPNs and proxies. And the Wayback Machine. And DuckDuckGo.

          2. They then should drop the link. We should be able to opt out of Google.

        2. If the information is wrong, it is the site that is hosting that information that needs to pull it down. Now if Google was hosting a “way way back machine” where they were archiving data from old websites and data that no longer exists and therefore were hosting the site themselves, that would mean Google should take down the data since they are now hosting it.

          1. If a creditor claims I owe him money, I can by law cease and desist them until they prove that I do. Google should be under the same constraints. I claim that the info is untrue. The link is dropped until they show that it is true.

      2. Everyday editors take down stories that don’t agree with the writers point of view. Google should not be able to hide behind free speech or other newspapers which are just printing pr provided by Internet companies. The greatest risk to freedom is total control of media by wealthy special interest groups and venture capital. Gone are the days of fair media. Googles dominance of advertising dollars has corrupted all forms of media. Will some take this down?

  2. patricknelissen Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    Reblogged this on patrick nelissen and commented:
    What do you think about this decision? I think it’s very good to decide what should be visible and what not about yourself.

  3. While one litigious guy has the time and money to challenge Google to the EU high court, then fine, Google has to erase some search links.

    This nonsense spouted by talking heads trying to scare everyone…how many people are that litigious, rich, and idle, or how many internet companies are as big as Google? Get real, the big internet companies will adapt, and there will be enough mirrors on the web to avoid the kind of censorship feared.

  4. Sameul Clemens Thursday, May 15, 2014

    The right to privacy does not trump the right to sell detailed personal information for commercial exploitation. Corporations are people, people, however, are mere ciphers for corporations to use.

    What part of sacred American law do you not understand?

  5. RFO Jefferson Thursday, May 15, 2014

    Hi! I’m German. WWII and the death camps are way in the past and had nothing to do with the German people of today. I’d like to have all mentions on Google removed.

  6. Fascinating

  7. The MPAA requests hiding of links that are facilitating theft of their property. Its doubtful whether this person could be considered an owner of the information that he once had to sell his house – that’s public information with various other parties involved in the transaction (including the government).

    There should be a law that if governments make expensive and unreasonable demands of a company, that they have to foot the bill for the changes they want made (which in Google’s case, might be millions of dollars of complex reworking of systems)

  8. There is a big difference in having free speech protected, and some company enabling the ability to find data on people. Who is censored?

  9. Doesn’t an EU citizen have a right to be able to see which links have been censored? Where will this be published?

  10. InternetReputation.com Wednesday, May 28, 2014

    Reblogged this on Internet Reputation Management Blog and commented:
    EU’s “right to be forgotten” decision has shocked legal experts and tech titans around the world. But what will the landmark ruling mean for the future of the internet (in Europe vs the U. S.)?

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