Last month, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered a surprise verdict against internet giant Google. The ECJ ruled that European citizens have the right to request search engines delete results linking to webpages containing personal information that is deemed “irrelevant” or “out-of-date”.
Spanish resident Mario Costeja Gonzalez had requested that Google remove specific links from its search results directing to a 1998 newspaper report on his bankruptcy proceedings. The Court agreed that search engines must comply with such requests when information is either inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.
However, the ECJ also ruled that this “right to be forgotten” is not total. For each request the correct balance must be struck between the right to data protection and privacy and the right to freedom of expression and information. In other words, search engines are under no obligation to remove results when there is a “public interest” or when data is kept for historical purposes. But who decides the correct balance between the right to information and the right to data protection? Does the individual’s “right to be forgotten” infringe on the public’s “right to remember”?
We recently spoke about the case with Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe, and Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German MEP who sits with the Greens and is rapporteur for the new General Data Protection Regulation. Do they think the ECJ’s verdict could be a threat to freedom of information?
First, we put this question to Jan Philipp Albrecht. What would he say about the recent ECJ ruling?
First, there is no ‘right to be forgotten’, nor is there a ‘right to remember’. Neither right exists legally, and they have just been imagined by the media. But there has to be a balance between the fundamental right to data protection on one hand, and the fundamental right to freedom of information and freedom of expression on the other.
This is nothing new. These rights have been balanced together for decades, by journalists, authorities, companies, everybody. The only thing that the ECJ has said in its verdict is that if Google, or any search engine, processes personal data, then of course they also have to make this balance. So rather than changing the balance, this ruling is a clarification that also Google has to respect the right to data protection and cannot say ‘we only respect the right to freedom of information or freedom of expression’. This judgment shows how important it is that we have a unified data protection regulation in the EU that explains how far the right to deletion of personal data goes and how this right can be enforced.
Next, we put the same question to Neelie Kroes. As the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, what does she think the Court’s decision will mean for rights in the online environment?
Let’s start with the positive part of this judgment: It creates more clarity and should create more trust in the online environment. Of course we must balance the right to access to information with the right to privacy. The ruling did provide some guidance on this. Each decision from now on will have to be made on an individual base, and taking into account whether the right to privacy will be in balance with the right to access to information.
Should search engines be forced to remove “irrelevant” results? Would the “right to be forgotten” limit freedom of information and expression? Where is the balance between the right to information and the right to data protection? Share your thoughts and comments in the comment section below, and we will put them to policy makers for their reaction!