European court rules Google must remove links at user's request

Cindy Gierhart | Prior Restraints | News | May 13, 2014

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled today that Google and other search engines must remove certain links if users complain – even if the information is true and lawfully posted. The ruling is grounded in what is known as an individual’s “right to be forgotten.”

While the ruling will likely have no direct effect on Internet searches within the United States, its implications will be felt around the world.

“It represents, potentially, the biggest clash between privacy rights and free speech rights of the modern era,” Reporters Committee Steering Committee member Jeffrey Rosen told The TakeAway radio news show this morning.

The case stems from a Spanish lawyer’s complaint that a Google search of his name led to newspaper stories about his financial difficulties from 1998. The lawyer did not claim the stories were false or illegally posted, just that they were embarrassing and he wanted them gone.

The right to respect for private life and the right to the protection of personal data “override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in finding that information,” the court wrote.

The court noted just one exception: If the user requesting removal is a public figure, then the public interest in accessing information about the public figure might outweigh the public figure’s privacy rights.

Therefore, if a user requests that a search engine remove links, and if those links are “inadequate, irrelevant or . . . excessive,” the links to that information “must be erased.” It seemed significant in this case that the links were 16 years old.

If the search engine refuses, the user may seek enforcement in court.

The ruling raises troublesome questions whether search engines on newspaper and media websites would be forced to remove links to their own stories.

“The Internet is everyone’s window on the world, and for the court to virtually close that window to its population is really troubling,” said Charles Tobin, a media lawyer who chairs Holland & Knight’s National Media Practice Team.

“This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general,” a Google statement said. “We now need to take time to analyse the implications.”