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Last updated: May 13, 2014 8:47 pm
Google and other US internet giants are braced for a blizzard of requests from European citizens demanding that sensitive personal information be removed from search results after a landmark ruling that redefines privacy in the internet age.
The decision from the European Court of Justice marks the biggest blow yet to American internet companies over European privacy standards and moves towards enforcing “a right to be forgotten”. It is also the first time that the search engine has been forced to take down a link to information legally published elsewhere on the web.
Industry groups warned the ruling would have far-reaching effects on search engines, social networks and online aggregators, bringing in a sweeping form of censorship as internet companies are beset by requests to have links to personal information removed.
However, some experts cautioned its implications would be limited in practice, since services like Google could refuse to take down links unless a national data protection authority had already ruled on the matter.
The case stems from a Spanish national’s request that Google stop linking to a 16-year-old announcement relating to the auction of his house because of social security debts.
The ECJ ruling interprets a 1995 data protection directive dating from the pre-Google era to find that search engines are not simply hosting content, but act as “controllers” of personal data and are responsible for the results presented to users.
Google lost on the grounds that individuals can demand the removal of links to “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” personal data – even when the information is published legally.
The conclusions appear to endorse the view that EU citizens already have a “right to be forgotten” on the internet, which the European Commission wants to introduce explicitly into law.
The ruling raises the stakes in the negotiation over that proposed EU data protection legislation, which poses both a threat to tech companies and a potential avenue for them to clarify how they should handle such privacy requests.
Mario Costeja González insists he has nothing against Google and its flagship search engine. He describes himself as a “fan” of the US group and offers lavish praise for its broader stance in the battle to further freedom of expression.
Yet his four-year legal crusade to force Google to remove links to certain, potentially embarrassing, internet content has now culminated in a bitter defeat for one of the world’s most powerful corporations . . .
James Waterworth of the CCIA, a tech industry lobby group, said the ruling could lead to “large-scale private censorship in Europe” and “open the floodgates” for requests to remove links to legal and publicly available information.
Some experts were more cautious. “The court was very careful to say this is not a carte blanche,” said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford university. “You would have to file a request with a data protection authority, who has to balance the public interest right” for the information to stay on the search engine.
Google already had a procedure for removing large numbers of links from its search engine when asked to do so for copyright reasons, and the new privacy ruling was likely to add only “a few dozen more a month”, he added.
Eduardo Ustaran, a lawyer at Field Fisher, said that the court’s decision was a further setback for internet groups still reeling from allegations that they were offering the NSA a back door to snoop on users’ personal information. “As with the NSA revelations, this is another instance where internet players cease to be regarded as neutral and become a target,” he said.
Google said it was “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general ... We now need to take time to analyse the implications.”
Mario Costeja González, the Spanish national who brought the complaint, said it was “not going to be a big problem for Google” because the ruling only required it to remove irrelevant information.
Additional reporting by Tobias Buck in Madrid
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