Google court decision: The right to be forgotten


The digital trail we now leave behind us from an early age has the potential to haunt us for the rest of our lives. Minor misdemeanours or youthful errors of judgment can affect people’s career prospects and reputations decades after they occurred. There has been much debate in recent years on the “right to be forgotten” online. Privacy advocates have argued that individuals should be allowed to manage their own personal information. This week, the European Court of Justice gave support to that view when it ruled in favour of Mario Costeja González, a Spanish citizen, against the search engine giant Google. Mr Costeja González had been mentioned in a 36-word newspaper notice, dating from 1998, which said his home was being repossessed to pay off debts. His concern was the piece’s prominent position in Google results if his name was searched.

The court did not establish a broad right for Europeans to be forgotten, nor did it require the newspaper to take down the material. But, importantly, it said that search engines such as Google do not merely display links to information; they also process such information and compile profiles of individuals. This, the court said, is covered by existing European privacy laws. It makes no difference, said the judges, whether or not the search engines do the processing on servers outside Europe.

The ruling has been greeted with dismay by some online activists who argue it threatens the unfettered access to information which is at the heart of the internet. Google itself fears that it will now be flooded with requests to cut links.

But it’s possible that the new legal requirement will be entirely manageable, since Google already has systems in place to facilitate the removal of certain types of material on request. And the ruling may come to be seen as an historic turning point in the hitherto unequal relationship between the individual and the corporate muscle of global corporations such as Google, whose business models are based on acquiring as much of our personal data as possible in pursuit of profit.

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