EU privacy blow to US internet companies

ECJ ruling first time Google forced to remove link to information elsewhere

Internet search engine operators such as Google must remove links to outdated personal data from their results pages, the European Court of Justice ruled yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Justin Lane

Internet search engine operators such as Google must remove links to outdated personal data from their results pages, the European Court of Justice ruled yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Justin Lane

Wed, May 14, 2014, 01:01

Google and other US internet groups are braced for a blizzard of requests from European citizens demanding that sensitive personal information be removed from search results after a court 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 remove a link to information legally published elsewhere.


Far-reaching effects
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.

But some experts cautioned that its implications would be limited in practice, since services such as Google could refuse to remove links unless a national data protection authority had already ruled on the matter.

The case stems from a request that Google stop linking to a 16-year-old announcement on the sale of a Spaniard’s house because of debt.

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 it is published legally.

The conclusions appear to endorse the view that EU citizens 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 talks over that proposed EU data protection legislation. James Waterworth of industry lobby group CCIS said the ruling could lead to “large-scale private censorship in Europe”.

Google said it was “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers.”
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014