‘Right to be forgotten’ ruling is backfiring, says Data watchdog

Billy Hawkes criticises Google’s interpretation of European Court of Justice ruling

Billy Hawkes: said Google’s policy of notifying news publishers about links it had removed led to the news publishers flag the articles and give them to a burst of publicity. Photograph: Eric Luke

Google’s interpretation of the European Court of Justice’s “right to be forgotten” ruling is prejudicing the intention of the court, the State’s data protection watchdog said yesterday, as regulators and search engine giants met in Brussels to discuss the matter.

Billy Hawkes, who will shortly retire as Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner, described the ruling as "a very difficult decision by the European Court of Justice".

The ruling, made in May, has effectively exposed Google to criticism both for removing links and for refusing requests for links to be removed.


Mr Hawkes said Google’s policy of notifying news publishers about links it had removed based on the right to be forgotten meant the court ruling was backfiring, as the news publishers had flagged the affected articles and given them a burst of publicity.


The BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian have each highlighted stories after they were told that they would have links cut.

“The whole idea about the right to be forgotten gets entirely prejudiced by that,” Mr Hawkes said at an event held by the Centre for Irish and European Security in Dublin.

Google and other search engines can refuse a request by a member of the public to remove a link if they believe it is not in the public interest to withdraw it. This has prompted appeals to data privacy authorities by individuals who object to the refusal to remove the link.

Mr Hawkes said his office was already dealing with three such appeals. “The bad news for data protection commissioners is that we become the panic buttons,” he said.

The cases might involve articles about a person’s behaviour where that behaviour “might not be illegal, but you would certainly want to have it forgotten”, he indicated.

‘Limited right’

The commissioner added that the ruling did not give people the right to be “forgotten”, as such, but the right for their name to be de-linked from the original material. “So it is actually quite a limited right, and even that right itself is circumscribed.”

Speaking in connection to intelligence agencies’ controversial access to personal information for security purposes, Mr Hawkes said the right to data privacy was losing out.

“It is getting the balance right that is the thing. And I think many of us would feel the balance has gone too far in the direction of giving the State access to our data, whether it is data retention in Europe or whether it is some of the NSA activity in the US.”

There is “a need for a new understanding, a new balance”, he said.

Mr Hawkes also defended his office’s method of “operating by persuasion” rather than legal coercion following criticism from some European countries, including Germany, that Ireland’s attitude to data privacy is too light touch.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics