EU backs 'right to be forgotten' in Google court case

A European court has backed the "right to be forgotten" for the first time and has ordered Google to delete "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" data from search results, if demanded by a member of public.

EU backs 'right to be forgotten' in Google court case
EU backs 'right to be forgotten' in Google court case

The ruling was made at the court case of Spanish man Mario Costeja González, who requested that Google delete certain references of his name on the search engine.

His issue with the Californian technology giant stemmed from an issue back in 1998, when he put his house up for auction in an attempt to clear social security debts. The details of the auction were reported by La Vanguardia, a popular mass circulation newspaper in Catalonia, and ever since a search for his name has resulted in Google showing a link to the article, detailing the auction listing.

However, Gonzalez argues that the references should now be deleted, saying that the matter has been resolved and that he is eager to move on his life.

And in a landmark case, EU judges agreed with the claimant, deciding under existing EU data protection laws proposed in January 2012, that Google – as “data controller” - would be required to delete the links to the two pages on the newspaper's website.

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding applauded the action, which could be increasingly commonplace, especially when the new EU Data Protection Regulation comes into effect

"The ruling confirms the need to bring today's data protection rules from the 'digital stone age' into today's modern computing world," she said in a post on Facebook

Google was, unsurprisingly, less enamoured with the news and responded to the news with the following statement: 

"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general. We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the advocate general's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications.”

Industry observers were mixed on the ruling, saying that it will fundamentally affect how companies collect, aggregate, store, retain and dispose of consumer data. Critics have also argued that this particular case should have been tackled at the source – the Spanish newspaper.

"Today's ruling from The European Union Court of Justice is a significant one and will give many businesses a severe headache to respond to," said EY director of information security, Mark Brown, in an email to reporters. "We are now finally seeing regulators playing catch up on privacy laws which have historically fallen behind the significant advances in technology - leading to wide-spread consumer data collection by businesses. 

"The announcement fundamentally changes how companies collect, aggregate, store, retain and ultimately dispose of consumer data and has significant implications. At present, most businesses cannot confidently say what data they hold on a consumer and what they have done with this data. There are a number of reasons for this complacency including the rise in companies that outsource data collection which complicates the supply chain.

"We would not be surprised if businesses are quaking in their boots at the thought of responding to a consumer ‘right be to be forgotten' request. Ultimately, many have very little understanding of their own IT architecture which means compliance with this announcement would be very difficult until processes are changed."

Christian Toon, head of information risk at Iron Mountain, also applauded the move in an email to SCMagazineUK.com.

"The latest ruling from the European Union Court of Justice that Google must amend some search results at people's requests has shown that the EU is taking the new ‘right to be forgotten' incredibly seriously, and will not be afraid to crackdown on companies who are not able to follow consumer requests to delete any information held about them," he said via email.

He further cited the company's own research, which indicated that 86 percent of consumers in the UK do not believe a company would honour the request to have their data removed, even if a company assured them it had been carried out, and said that trust is at an all-time low.

"...This is not about one company in particular, the real question here is whether all companies are ready to carry out these requests."

Paul Bernel, a lecturer in information technology, intellectual property and media law at the University of East Anglia Law School, wrote on Twitter that the move could open up a can of worms, and suggested that Google could tweak their algorithm in order to avoid future court cases with big companies.

"Personally I suspect Google will tweak their algorithm to make older stories lower down the list, and financial stories too," he wrote. "They'll want to cut down the number of possible requests for removal in order to have less to do."