Yesterday the European Court of Justice (ECJ) announced that it backed “the right to be forgotten” in a landmark ruling which states that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its results if a user requests it. There is little doubt that the principle that you have a right to be forgotten is a laudable one, but it was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history. It should also be noted, that this ruling is not “the right to be forgotten” in its truest sense.
In an advisory judgement resulting from a Spanish case, the ECJ found that under European law, individuals have a right to control over their private data, especially if they are not public figures. The ruling states: people “may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine … which must then duly examine its merits”. The search enginge must then consider “the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary”. Full details of the ruling are available here (pdf).
Search engines do not host information and trying to get them to censor legal content from their results is the wrong approach. Information should be tackled at source, which in this case is a Spanish newspaper, otherwise we start getting into very dangerous territory.
The regulators should be doing more to ensure that people have an informed choice over what data is collected about them by companies like Google, but if we start to make intermediaries responsible for the actions of the content of other people, you’re establishing a model that leads to greater surveillance and a risk of censorship. A better example of enforcing “the right to be forgotten” is adding protections when someone wants to close a social media account. Companies shouldn’t be able to hold on to our information just in case you want to re-join. It’s important that citizens have better rights when it comes to stopping companies collecting data without proper consent or holding on to information for an unjustifiable length of time, even when people have ceased to use a service.
Our Acting Director, Emma Carr, appeared on Newsnight and Sky News to discuss the case.