For a long time now, the EU has had its eye on creating what’s known as a ‘right to be forgotten’. Some draft legislation proposed the idea in January 2012 and people have been arguing and lobbying about it ever since.
The concept has always been a bit vague but in broad terms the plan was that anyone should be able to require organisations to stop ‘processing’ information about them if they wanted to, subject to some checks and balances like freedom of expression and public interest.
A European Court of Justice (‘ECJ’) decision looks to have moved the right one step closer to reality.
Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish lawyer, brought Google to court because they did not believe they were required to prevent certain information about him showing when a search of his name was carried out. The information in question was true, it had not been placed on the internet by Google and it was accurate: he had been forced to sell his property in order to repay debts that he owed.
Because the case is based on European law, the Spanish court asked the ECJ for guidance on whether Google had to take action. The ECJ said they did.
The decision in cases like this almost always boils down to a balancing exercise between competing rights. In this case it was decided that Mr Gonzalez had the right to prevent information about him showing up if that information was ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive…’ (the language is strange because it comes directly from European data protection laws). The ECJ also decided that it is not necessary for the right to exist to show that the information was causing any prejudice to the person concerned.
It was recognised that Google and the general public have rights too – Google has economic interests and the public have the right to have access to information about people. However, the court decided that as a general rule the individual’s right trumps the other rights. The balance, such as it is, is that there might be occasions where the general public interest justifies the information being open to display on the results page – the (rather vague) example given was where the individual complaining had a role in public life.
What happens now? It’s unlikely anyone, including Google, really knows.