Centre for Internet & Society

The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that an "an internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties.” The decision adds to the conundrum of maintaining a balance between freedom of expression, protecting personal data and intermediary liability.

The ruling is expected to have considerable impact on reputation and privacy related takedown requests as under the decision, data subjects may approach the operator directly seeking removal of links to web pages containing personal data. Currently, users prove whether data needs to be kept online—the new rules reverse the burden of proof, placing an obligation on companies, rather than users for content regulation.

A win for privacy?

The ECJ ruling addresses Mario Costeja González complaint filed in 2010, against Google Spain and Google Inc., requesting that personal data relating to him appearing in search results be protected and that data which was no longer relevant be removed. Referring to the Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament, the court said, that Google and other search engine operators should be considered 'controllers' of personal data. Following the decision, Google will be required to consider takedown requests of personal data, regardless of the fact that processing of such data is carried out without distinction in respect of information other than the personal data.

The decision—which cannot be appealed—raises important of questions of how this ruling will be applied in practice and its impact on the information available online in countries outside the European Union.  The decree forces search engine operators such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing to make judgement calls on the fairness of the information published through their services that reach over 500  million people across the twenty eight nation bloc of EU.

ECJ rules that search engines 'as a general rule,' should place the right to privacy above the right to information by the public. Under the verdict, links to irrelevant and out of date data need to be erased upon request, placing search engines in the role of controllers of information—beyond the role of being an arbitrator that linked to data that already existed in the public domain. The verdict is directed at highlighting the power of search engines to retrieve controversial information while limiting their capacity to do so in the future.

The ruling calls for maintaining a balance in addressing the legitimate interest of internet users in accessing personal information and upholding the data subject’s fundamental rights, but does not directly address either issues. The court also recognised, that the data subject's rights override the interest of internet users, however, with exceptions pertaining to nature of information, its sensitivity for the data subject's private life and the role of the data subject in public life. Acknowledging that data belongs to the individual and is not the right of the company, European Commissioner Viviane Reding, hailed the verdict, "a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans".

The Court stated that if data is deemed irrelevant at the time of the case, even if it has been lawfully processed initially, it must be removed and that the data subject has the right to approach the operator directly for the removal of such content. The liability issue is further complicated by the fact, that search engines such as Google do not publish the content rather they point to information that already exists in the public domain—raising questions of the degree of liability on account of third party content displayed on their services.

The ECJ ruling is based on the case originally filed against Google, Spain and it is important to note that, González argued that searching for his name linked to two pages originally published in 1998, on the website of the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. The Spanish Data Protection Agency did not require La Vanguardia to take down the pages, however, it did order Google to remove links to them. Google appealed this decision, following which the National  High Court of Spain sought advice from the European court. The definition of Google as the controller of information, raises important questions related to the distinction between liability of publishers and the liability of processors of information such as search engines.

The 'right to be forgotten'

The decision also brings to the fore, the ongoing debate and fragmented opinions within the EU, on the right of the individual to be forgotten. The 'right to be forgotten' has evolved from the European Commission's wide-ranging plans of an overhaul of the commission's 1995 Data Protection Directive. The plans for the law included allowing people to request removal of personal data with an obligation of compliance for service providers, unless there were 'legitimate' reasons to do otherwise. Technology firms rallying around issues of freedom of expression and censorship, have expressed concerns about the reach of the bill. Privacy-rights activist and European officials have upheld the notion of the right to be forgotten, highlighting the right of the individual to protect their honour and reputation.

These issues have been controversial amidst EU member states with the UK's Ministry of Justice claiming the law 'raises unrealistic and unfair expectations' and  has sought to opt-out of the privacy laws. The Advocate General of the European Court Niilo Jääskinen's opinion, that the individual's right to seek removal of content should not be upheld if the information was published legally, contradicts the verdict of the ECJ ruling. The European Court of Justice's move is surprising for many and as Richard Cumbley, information-management and data protection partner at the law firm Linklaters puts it, “Given that the E.U. has spent two years debating this right as part of the reform of E.U. privacy legislation, it is ironic that the E.C.J. has found it already exists in such a striking manner."

The economic implications of enforcing a liability regime where search engine operators censor legal content in their results aside, the decision might also have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and access to information. Google called the decision “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general,” and that the company would take time to analyze the implications. While the implications of the decision are yet to be determined, it is important to bear in mind that while decisions like these are public, the refinements that Google and other search engines will have to make to its technology and the judgement calls on the fairness of the information available online are not public.

The ECJ press release is available here and the actual judgement is available here.

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