UK government criticised for opposing 'right to be forgotten'

News by Tim Ring

The British government has been criticised by the president of a leading UK data protection professional body for trying to water down the 'right to be forgotten' privacy protection now being instigated by Google.

UK justice minister Simon Hughes told a House of Lords Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday that he opposed a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which gives people the right to have “inadequate” or “no longer relevant” search results removed from the internet.

Hughes said the ECJ decision has already led to Google receiving “thousands” of requests from individuals to have links removed.

He told the Lords: "The Government is concerned. We think it's the wrong position. I don't think we want the law to develop in the way that is implied by the ECJ judgment, which is that you close down access to information in the EU which is open in the rest of the world. We do not agree with the present text."

Hughes, a Liberal Democrat MP, said he is strongly in favour of “maximum freedom of information” adding: ‘I am respectful of the need to protect data and I'm respectful of the need to protect the privacy of the citizen but I will always look to maximise freedom and freedom of information and the sharing of that information in the EU as well as outside it – I hope that's a clear statement of what the public interest is from the Government's point of view.'

The ‘right to be forgotten' is a key plank of the new Europe-wide data protection law due to be agreed in 2015 – yet Hughes said the UK Government will try to water that down too: “The government does not support the right to be forgotten as it is currently proposed by the European Commission.”

But Stewart Room, president of the UK's National Association of Data Protection Officers (NADPO), criticised the Government' stance, insisting that the latest ruling protects individual privacy and does not threaten freedom of information.

Room told “In my view data deletion is an integral part of data protection, there's no question. Data protection law is about informational privacy and the idea which is at the heart here is that we shall be in control of our own information. The ECJ judgement is pretty good in my view; I think the ECJ got it right.”

Hughes said the ruling will “inevitably increase work” for the UK data privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

But Room questioned: “What's wrong with that? What is wrong about citizens complaining to regulators? If you agree with data protection regulation then you have a regulator, and if you have a regulator that's a place for citizens to complain.”

Room said the problem is “not the law itself, but how it's implemented and enforced”. He told SC: “What's missing - and I think this is where the minister is basically on solid ground - is people have not thought through the consequences of the law and how do we make this less confusing for business, how do we make it less confusing for citizens.”

Hughes said he wants search providers like Google to share with the public information on the number of right-to-be-forgotten applications turned down and accepted, to help get over to people “the robust message that this does not mean that something you don't like about your record can suddenly disappear because you're going to ask about it”.

The ICO confirmed that is already receiving protests from people who have not been able to get links removed by Google. The group's spokesperson told SC: “In the past few days we have started to receive complaints from individuals who have already received a response from Google to their takedown request. We are currently considering these complaints.”

But overall the ICO is in favour of the ECJ ruling, with deputy commissioner David Smith writing in a blog post last month: “This is a judgment that we welcome. It sets out a framework to hold data controllers operating online search engines to account for the personal data they process. It also backs our view that search engines are subject to data protection law, clarifying an area that was previously uncertain.”

Google meanwhile is taking a wait-and-see stance. A company spokesperson told SC via email: “We have recently started taking action on the removals requests we've received after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision. This is a new and evolving process for us. We'll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling.”

The ECJ ruling stipulates that Google and the other search engine providers must remove data that is old, inaccurate or just irrelevant if the person involved requests it. But it does not create a charter for criminals to cover up their past – if information is deemed to be in the public interest, it must remain 'findable'.

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