In an age where concerns about online privacy abound, Europeans can rest assured that they have the right to be forgotten. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in May 2014 that Google and other search engines will have to regulate their search results to limit access to personal information. Specifically, the ECJ’s ruling grants individuals the right to ask search engines to remove links that are inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.
The ECJ’s decision originated from a court case launched by a Spanish citizen, Mario Costeja González, more than a decade ago. In 1998, the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia published an announcement that Mr. González, a lawyer, auctioned off a house in order to pay his taxes. After the newspaper digitized its archives the story was the first link to appear in Google under Mr. González’s name. González complained to Google that the accessibility of the information caused him unnecessary professional problems, and that it needed to be removed. After the company refused his request, Mr. González turned to Spain’s data protection authority, and the case escalated until it eventually reached the ECJ last summer.
The right to be forgotten is not without controversy. Opinions regarding the legislation are split across the Atlantic, where both the United States and Canada champion the right to free speech over the right to privacy. Legal experts quoted in the The New Yorker magazine said the Gonzalez case would not have succeeded in the United States. This is because under U.S. law, the press is free to publish accurate, accessible, lawful information free from censorship. However, the ECJ decision has raised questions in North America about how courts should balance the right to freedom of expression with an individual’s privacy. A number of Canadian lawyers have stated that although it is unlikely Canada will adopt a similar right to be forgotten policy, they are not ruling it out given the ECJ’s decision.
The company most impacted by the ECJ decision is Google. The online search engine reported more than 120,000 requests of link removal since the legislation came into effect, and has granted nearly half of them. The requests submitted to Google range from information about criminal trials, to embarrassing photographs. Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, has complained that the ECJ has forced the company into a role it does not want, by making it regulate rather than simply supply content. The corporation has invested in a new “removals team” department to evaluate each request and process Google’s decisions.
The right to be forgotten has started a global dialogue about privacy in the digital age. The issue is that, with regard to privacy, individual and collective interests conflict. Individually, we all benefit from having questionable moments from our past hidden from public scrutiny. However, this creates serious costs to the public good. For example, by removing search results, important information about political leaders and other publically accountable figures could become inaccessible and remain buried beneath the vast quantities of online data. In theory, this scenario would be addressed by regulations that require the removal only of search results deemed irrelevant. However, relevancy can be ambiguous, and is not always immediately apparent. Information that is not relevant at the time a request is made could become extremely pertinent later on. Even with tougher privacy laws, decisions about what society should “forget” would still be made by unaccountable and non-transparent private corporations. Augusta Waldie