U.S. Internet Firms Caught Up in European Google Ruling that Pits Privacy against Freedom of Speech

Friday, May 16, 2014
Members of the Court of Justice of the European Union (photo: European Court of Justice)

A European court has handed down a landmark decision that would expand the privacy rights of individuals while making life a lot more difficult for Internet giants such as Google.


The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in the “right to be forgotten” case that people are entitled to have certain information about them removed from search engine results and websites. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Wikipedia would have to adjust their operations in Europe to comply with the decision.


Executives at the Internet giants were shocked by the ruling, which could mean having to deal with thousands of requests from those wanting information deleted.


Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, called the decision “one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen.”


“If you really dig into it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re asking Google... you can complain about something and just say it’s irrelevant, and Google has to make some kind of a determination about that,” he told BBC Radio 5.


Wales proclaimed the ruling “isn’t going to stand for very long.” However, the ruling is final and can’t be appealed, according to the Los Angeles Times. Others praised the court for putting privacy rights above the freedom-of-speech arguments put forth by Google, which was the defendant in the case.


Trevor Hughes, president and CEO of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, called the ruling “groundbreaking.”


“Individuals now have the ability to essentially go in with a virtual black marker and redact their names,” Hughes told USA Today. The decision will “fundamentally change the landscape not only in the field of privacy, but also in the information economy generally.”


The ruling does not apply outside the European Union. But both sides said it could lead to major changes in privacy policies elsewhere, including the U.S.


“I have an optimistic view that it will raise privacy standards not only in Europe, but also in the U.S.,” Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, told the Times. “That would be a positive outcome.”


The case originated with Costeja González of Spain, who wanted an old auction notice from the 1990s showing his repossessed home removed from search results. He said he had repaid the debt and didn’t want the embarrassing episode to haunt him online for the rest of his life.


Individuals have already approached Google to demand information be taken down. The ruling said the information must be removed if it appears “to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purpose for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.”


If Google or others fail to comply with the requests, individuals can take their case to “competent authorities,” which the court did not spell out.


Internet companies will have to quickly create mechanisms for dealing with those who request that their information be removed. Google already performs this service, but the burden of proof is on the person wanting the information taken down.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Europe Court Ruling Reboots Web Privacy Rules for Google, Others (by Chris O’Brien, Los Angeles Times)

Google Ruling 'Astonishing', Says Wikipedia Founder Wales (by Dave Lee, BBC News)

‘Right to be Forgotten’ Highlights Sharp Divide on U.S., European Attitudes Toward Privacy (by Hayley Tsukayama, Washington Post)

New European Ruling Game-Changing for U.S. Companies (by Kim Hjelmgaard and Elizabeth Weise, USA Today)

Google Gets Take-Down Requests after European Court Ruling: Source (by Alexei Oreskovic, Reuters)

Clicking “Like” on Facebook is Free Speech, But Online Hate May Be another Story (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Google Says Its Customers Shouldn’t Expect Any Email Privacy (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)



Leave a comment