‘Right to be forgotten’ should be reviewed after use by Quinns, data privacy expert says

Concerns about public figures using the policy to remove media coverage raised ‘from day one’

The Data Protection Commission should review how Google handles requests to delist news articles from its search engine, a data privacy campaigner has said, following the Quinn family’s use of the ‘right to be forgotten’ online.

The Irish Independent reported on Saturday that a number of articles it published about former billionaire Seán Quinn and his family had been delisted from Google searches.

The articles delisted from the search engine included past coverage of the family’s lifestyle and their involvement in extensive court battles in the fallout of the financial crash.

Following a 2014 court ruling, individuals can request search engines to delist articles, making them harder to find online, under what it called the “right to be forgotten”.


TJ McIntyre, chair of Digital Rights Ireland and law lecturer in University College Dublin, said the Quinn case highlighted potential issues with the practice.

Mr McIntyre said the intention of the ruling was to help people with “old or spent convictions,” where previously that information appeared prominently in Google searches years after the incident in question.

When the ruling was used to de-list a large amount of press coverage, that posed a “problem,” he said.

Concerns about public figures using the policy to try to remove media coverage amount themselves online were raised “from day one” in discussions around the right to be forgotten, he said.

The data privacy expert said he would be “worried” about such cases in something that was an “important mechanism”. “I think in the immediate term the Data Protection Commission needs to use its powers to examine the handling of these requests generally,” he said.

The rules came into force in 2014 after the European Court of Justice established the right for individuals to ask search engines to delete information about themselves appearing in queries.

In deciding what to delist, search engines such as Google must consider if the information in question is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” - and whether there is a public interest in the information remaining available in search results.

Through the ruling Google had been given “an important public interest function,” which had “fallen into its lap,” Mr McIntyre said.

There was no mechanism for media organisations to appeal a decision by Google to de-list articles from its search engine, he said.

Olga Cronin, information rights policy officer at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), said there were clear public interest exemptions to the right to be forgotten, particularly where it related to public figures.

“It’s essential that Big Tech companies such as Google are transparent about their processes when they make decisions which can affect the public discourse in this way,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Google said they did not comment on individual right to be forgotten requests.

“We assess each request on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, we may ask the individual for more information,” she said.

Requests were reviewed manually, and if Google decided against delisting content, the individual was provided with a brief explanation about why the decision was taken, she said.

Several Quinn family members did not respond to requests for comment.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times