Google is distorting right to be forgotten debate, EU Justice head claims

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Critics of the European Union’s controversial “right to be forgotten” policy, which lets citizens ask companies to delete their personal data, are “playing false” and trying to derail important reforms, according to EU Justice Commissioner, Martine Reicharts.

Speaking in Lyon, France on Monday, Reicharts singled out Google for allegedly trying to undermine a controversial court ruling in May that has already led to more than 91,000 asking for it to delete search results they dislike.

“Search engines such as Google and other affected companies complain loudly. But they should remember this: handling citizens’ personal data brings huge economic benefits to them. […] Those who try to use distorted notions of the right to be forgotten to discredit the reform proposals are playing false. We must not fall for this,” said Reicharts in her speech.

Reichart’s words appear aimed at Google and others, including news outlets and U.K. politicians, who have expressed concern that the right to be forgotten allows people to rewrite history, and is provide a tool for bad people — like pedophiles and disgraced politicians — to try and cover up their misdeeds.

The controversy over the ruling, issued by the European Court of Justice, has arisen in part because the court provided little guidance about how it is to be applied, including part of the ruling that says the right-to-be-forgotten doesn’t always apply if the public interest is at stake. In July, Google’s head lawyer wrote an article in the Guardian about the difficulties of balancing privacy rights and the public interest.

Reichart, however, said such concerns are overblown. She noted that the right to have personal information actually dates from 1995, and that the court ruling simply confirms that it applies to non-European web firms operating in Europe. She also portrayed the court ruling as part of a larger data reform effort that could improve the economic fortunes of Europe by increasing trust among consumers.

“Internet users will have to regain their confidence. Only if people are willing to give out their personal data will companies reap the full rewards of our digital single market.”

Reichart also repeated earlier vows by EU officials to impose tougher penalties on companies that breach personal data laws, citing proposed reforms that could impose sanctions that reach up to 2 percent of a company’s global revenue.

“If a company has broken the rules, this should have serious consequences. Yet so far, the fines European data protection authorities can impose are very low. For giants like Google, they are just pocket money.”

Despite the tough message, however, Reichart is unlikely to take any immediate action since she occupies a caretaker role as Commissioner. A new EU Commission will only be unveiled later this year.

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